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“I’ve seen your numbers Bruce.  But if we don’t ship by next month, we’ll be out of business.”

Project Managers Get The Motivation Right!Fear is a great motivation.  Or is it?  A VP of software development made the above statement to me.

What do you think happened?

We didn’t complete the project next month. It took another calendar quarter before we had a product a customer would accept.

He was right in one sense.  We ultimately went out of business, about 10 years later, which included a few years of spectacular success.

The fear of “going out of business” and losing our jobs didn’t make anything magical happen on our very late and very buggy software project.  Many people worked many long hours against an unrealistic schedule that even our customers didn’t believe we could make.

Yet the motivating cry was “we have to do this to stay in business!”

Of course, since we lingered for years, that motivating statement had little or no meaning.  We did work around the clock because we were periodically laying off folks to cut costs and those of us who worked around the clock had less chance of being let go.  Or at least we thought so.

I had another boss tell me “Don’t tell them the real status.  It will only demotivate them.”  What was that status?  It was that we actually had about twice the amount of work to do than what the previous project manager had been reporting.

This boss felt that the team only needed to believe that they could get it done … to get it done.  If they only believed they would find a way.  They didn’t need to know the “big picture.”  They just needed to do whatever was under their nose at the moment.

In this case, we actually did OK.

Yes, I did tell everyone the real status (a horrible fault of mine, not always following a senior manager’s “suggestion”).  Interestingly enough, the feedback was “Yeah, we knew that. We just didn’t think management really wanted to know how much we really still needed to do.”

So, the motivational technique of presenting an optimistic status wasn’t fooling anyone who was doing the actual work.  Yet management felt that it was necessary to only present an optimistic view as a method to allegedly maintain motivation.

“Bruce, you are sending the wrong message!”

This was a business manager’s comment when I presented a risk analysis comparing our project’s progress against what had really happened in past projects of this type.  Our schedule clearly had not accounted for how long it had actually taken in the past to complete each  task on similar projects.

What was the business manager’s recommendation?

He suggested that I adjust my risk analysis to show that we will deliver on time.  This way, he said, folks won’t think they have more time than we say and hence they will get the work done in the time we allotted.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

We ended up having to “slip the schedule” because we were, no surprise here, missing milestones.

My recommendation to slip the schedule to match our past performance was accepted by all those other managers without argument. It seems they knew it would take this long, but had agreed to the previous schedule because it was expected for them to agree and that any such schedule would always slip.

The motivation of committing to an “aggressive schedule” didn’t motivate anyone.

The managers knew it would eventually slip and had no problem agreeing to it. In one such “negotiation” over another aggressive schedule, I heard one manager say “that is our goal; we will try hard to make it; we’ll do the best we can” but he would never say “yes, we’ll make that schedule.”  He was trying to maintain personal integrity while agreeing to try to meet the overly aggressive schedule.

In another schedule negotiation, where I somehow ended up being the guy having to get commitments to an unrealistic schedule, I asked the manager that if he got perfect code from the developers could he meet his part of the schedule.

He looked at me skeptically and said “sure, but that will never …” and I said “Ok, agreed to the schedule with the assumption of perfect code …”

I actually put these “perfect” assumptions in the plan and risk analysis.

Everyone just kind of rolled their eyes and ignored them.  They all knew what was going to happen, as it always happened in the past.  Even my brutally honest Dilbert style statement didn’t cause anyone to argue that I was sending the wrong message or demotivating the teams.

For more see: Why Project Management Dilbert Style Works

Motivating a team with other than honest information just doesn’t do anything useful, in my experience.  At best it is given lip service and the team just presses on with the impression that management is out of touch and not willing to face reality.

Compare with Being A Manager Is Hard But Not For The Reasons I Expected.

When we’ve used brutal honesty and wrapped our motivation and goals around solid information, we not only immediately improved our on time project performance but team members more often contributed innovative ideas that further enhanced our quality and productivity.  Now, that’s not bad motivation!

Are you motivating your project team with brutally honest objectives?

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2 thoughts on “Project Managers Get The Motivation Right!

  1. Comments from around the web:

    Harold Sims • Similar to team athletics which I am familiar with and embrace as a style of project management. I’ve found it to be very fruitful and fulfilling to approach the PM role as a player/coach where the mission is clearly defined. The goals, objectives the time-lines and roles are presented frequently as in play calling. Progress and /or delays along with any technical issues and strategy and priority changes are communicated openly with full participation from the team. I favor the team approach to experienced full participation in the project. Motivation comes naturally when the team members have a sense of ownership and inclusion.

    Bruce Benson • Harold,

    I believe team athletics provides a lot of good notions and a lot of good training for life in general. I ran my kids through just about every sport activity available, but alas they didn’t find anything (so far) that kept them interested. Still, I know they learned a lot that will be useful later in life.

    Another analogy that worked for me was … marriage. How I worked with my wife was significantly different from how I worked with colleagues. With time I found myself using more of a collaborative approach with people (I was a data driven kind of guy) because of how I had adapted to married life. I realized that we could still do very well, without everything being just the way I wanted it — even if I were the boss and could get my way (which of course was not an option available in a marriage!).

    Great point, thanks.

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