Use one simple question to help get the project back on track

Have you ever listened to people talk about how, when, and why they failed? Or, for that matter, listened to your own stories about how circumstances and events conspired to create a “perfect storm” in which failure simply could not be avoided? These things, we say, just happen even to the best of us. Alternately we commiserate about how unreasonable our project sponsors were, to not allow us to redefine our failure as a sterling success.

There is something almost surreal about these conversations. It's like people have forgotten, or at least refuse to admit, that our current experience is built out of the time we invested in the past. What happens today occurs directly because of what we did, or failed to do, in the months and weeks before. Failure, in particular, occurs when we focused on what needed doing today rather than what we needed to do for our team to succeed in the next few months.

The interesting thing about these failures is that they rarely take on the form of a deliberate decision not to act. Indeed, almost every project manager I know spends every day, all day, working hard for the team. Instead it happens in fits and starts, in the gradual accumulation of minutes, then hours, then days which finally lead the project to a moment when everything “fails” all at once.

How does this idea play out in practice? Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. When was the last time you could not get to sending an order out on the right day because of an urgent issue at one of your project sites?
  2. When was the last time you were delayed in releasing a communication because, on the way to your desk, you stopped off to answer three other questions about the project?
  3. When was the last time you picked up the phone to wrangle a vendor who failed to meet his commitment to your project, your resources, or your clients?

If you answered “yesterday” to any of the above, odds are good that you lost a few minutes of time you wanted to invest towards making things easier in the future rather than surviving in the present. If things settled down a bit you probably stole time from your health and well being by avoiding lunch, skipping your workout, or just clocking in an few hours at the end of the day to “catch up”. If not, then things just have to start falling behind – the further behind, the closer we come to the moment when we stand in our manager or project sponsor's office and talk about how we will “recover” from the “current situation.”

If you find yourself behind, it's hard to get things back to where you can focus on tomorrow rather than today. Fortunately, there is a very simple way to prioritize your own work. When you pull together your list of tasks for the day, ask yourself the following question:

Which of these activities will allow my team to function better in the future?

Anything which addresses an immediate concern, or resolves a problem today, you can hand off to your lead technician. Techs get paid to solve problems in the present – using them to do so does not put them into a role conflict.

Also, do not just ask yourself this question once during the day. Ask it over and over again, every time yet another task gets added to your list. If a task does not deal with the future, it goes to someone else. If you do not have a resource to hand it to, get one.

Yes, it's that important.