When important projects or milestones are looming, the best way to ensure peak performance by your staff is to seek a personal commitment from those key contributors who are most capable of producing success. In a private setting … approach them and discuss the looming project or milestone. Discuss with them their part of the project. After it is clear to both of you what their contribution will be, reiterate why the project or milestone is important and ask them if they will “move heaven and earth” to make sure the milestone or project is completed on time or [successful]. … Keep in mind that you cannot seek this kind of commitment too often or it will lose its motivational effect. Save if for truly important projects or milestones. Motivating Programmers, Mickey Mantle and Ron Lichty, Software Development Times, February 2013.
I listened as the senior manager asked the engineering manager if his team could make the stated deadline. The engineering manager said he would try his best. The senior manager again asked “will you make it?” The engineering manager said he would put his best folks on it. It went around this way for a few minutes. The senior manager asking the engineering managers to say “yes we will” and the engineering managers, trying to retain integrity, only saying in various ways “we will try.”
So why wouldn’t the engineering manager agree that he would make it? In this case because the milestone was completely unrealistic. Why would the senior manager be insisting upon a commitment? Because this was how it was done in this organization. We had not delivered a product on time (always months late) in the recent memory of the company. How were we going to fix this problem of late delivery? We were going to get in the face of each and every team manager and insist that they personally commit to meeting their dates!
Did we deliver on time? Nope. It took several years before we got to a point where we began to deliver when promised. How did we get there? We didn’t push people to make personal commitments. Instead we finally paid attention to how long it was currently taking us to deliver a new product (regardless of commitments extracted from people) and used that recent past history to tell us how long the next product would probably take.
For more on schedules see Get The Schedule Right!
What do you think the reaction was when we asked if they could get something done in this new amount of time? Amazement.
I had one project manager tell me his team would accomplish something in six weeks. I told him that was not enough time. He was flabbergasted. He had given me the “standard” amount of time we always allocated to this task (and never achieved, by the way). This should have been an easy negotiation. Instead, I told him to go back and figure out how long it had taken them in the past and then come back and tell me how long his team would really need. He looked at me and said “Bruce, how much time do you want me to take?” I told him, again, to go talk with his team and dig through their past performance and come back and tell me how much time he will really need. The ace I had was I had already done that research and now needed him to go back and do it himself and come to own his team’s performance and schedule commitments.
We delivered this mega-project on time. I didn’t need to twist any arms or push for getting them to “move heaven and earth” to meet a deadline. Why not? Because these folks already worked hard and already cared about doing a good job. What I did was to give them the time they needed, based upon how well they had done in the past, to do a good job this time. No, it didn’t take any longer nor cost any more than similar projects had taken in the past. And, by the way, the quality was not the same, it was dramatically better than products we had delivered in the past.
For more on how schedule and quality interacts see In Project Management 9+3 Is Not Equal To 12
If we get to a point where we have to extract a personal commitment out of each individual, I suspect we are already in trouble. I agree with the author of the article that if we do want to try this, it should be done sparingly and only in situations where we believe it will make a difference. It can’t replace a realistic schedule or missing resources. Individuals can often do amazing things, but trying to manage this exceptionalism by making it a step in our project management process (“insert miracle here”) is pretty much a harbinger of failure. This is one potentially great project management tool that I would advise caution in using.
Do you have to extract exceptional personal commitments out of each individual to get the project plan you want? Is that resulting in successful projects?