After Hours

Remember, this project is not the last, best hope for peace or profit

In the video game Knights of the Old Republic there comes a point where the crusty old advisory turns on our idealistic young hero and shouts, in effect, "Yes, this is the greatest threat to the galaxy since the LAST greatest threat! There's always some greatest threat!" Although its a video game, and therefore an unlikely source of wisdom, I sometime wish I could tattoo the statement onto the eyelids of technicians and project managers everywhere.

The universe of business works much the same way.

Here's the set up. Corporations exist to turn a profit. Executives are compensated on how well they do in meeting operational goals which will, in theory, help to make that profit real. Managers receive compensation when they get ordinary folks (that's us, by the way) to do the work which produces the thing which meets the goal. Someone also needs to work to create the thing which generates the profit, though in some industries that's a bit obscure.

This set-up means there will always be some great initiative afoot to make more profit. There will always exist competing goals, some unachievable and others just unreasonable, attached to the paychecks of authority figures. The urgency this creates will always leak down to the lower levels in the form of "do or die" mandates calling for heroic action on the part of the many for the benefit of the few.

For our own sanity as project managers we have to remember that this latest call for heroics is just like the one that preceded it and remarkably similar to the one which will follow it. We have to heed it to the extent necessary to get the job done. However, our responsibility is to build the organization's strength in terms of change process and conserve our human and technical resources to meet not just today's "need," but also the opportunities which will arise tomorrow...and the next day...and the next.

This is not a "thing" that we do, but a way in which we approach the problems we encounter and a way we think about the situations we face. The first step, and the most important one, is to step back from the immediate chaos and calm our panic. Yes, the deadlines loom. Yes, we have no power or authority to make things happen. Yes, we will be held responsible when all hell breaks loose. No, we will not get any credit for pulling things together at the last minute and making it all work.

It's hard not to want the recognition, the fame, the glory we think of as our rightful due. It's difficult to let go of the heroics and the struggle, especially given just how little real challenge we face at work. But letting go is exactly what we must do if we want to actually succeed.

More importantly, as a manager giving in to the temptation to hurl oneself headlong into the fire affects everyone on the team. Our heroics translate into obvious goals they have to meet themselves. Our panic over the constantly mounting deadlines, the ever-present failure, and the sheer effort we put into doing things becomes the marker they will use to determine how to "succeed" in this particular environment.

That's fine for about 90 days. What happens next? How long can we keep it up before we become irritable? Before things fall apart and we have to spend even more time every day keeping them together? Before we invest so much of our time, so much of our team's time, of our allies time, of everyone's time, that there is nothing left to meet the next big challenge?

The short-sighted view of traditional project management, with it's scope documents and its focus on single products, encourages this kind of behavior. Success in the long run, though, depends entirely on taking a longer and more process oriented view focusing on how we achieve results within livable parameters.

Selling managers, executives, and corporations on this can be a trick. That's something I'm still working on.

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