Pressure often comes from the disparity between expectations and reality. We can limit this disparity by limiting the perceived ups and downs that come with most projects. Here are some tactics for managing pressure by smoothing out the ups and downs. See "Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations," Point Lookout for December 13, 2006, and "Managing Pressure: The Unexpected," Point Lookout for December 20, 2006, for more.
- Space milestones evenly
- It's common practice to divide project timelines into uneven segments distinguished by milestones, with some milestones identified as "major." This practice can undermine perceptions of progress, because people prefer steady forward progress to an uneven stream of equal-sized steps forward. This is true even if the achievements vary greatly in significance.
- Spacing milestones unevenly creates progress perception problems. To manage perceptions, let go of the distinction between kinds of milestones. Have more milestones, and space them fairly evenly.
- Milestones near deliveries are critical
- Gaps between milestones just prior to a delivery are especially costly, because they engender anxiety about a lack of real evidence that the project is healthy. Anxiety increases if preparations are underway for receiving the delivery.
- Idle time creates fear. Choose milestones that provide news during parts of the schedule when people might be susceptible to fear.
- Deliver usable capability at regular intervals
- Even when a schedule has evenly spaced milestones, customers, sponsors, and management can become anxious when the project delivers usable capability at irregular intervals. Milestones that don't "matter" to the customer have little positive impact on perceptions of progress.
- The psychological reason for this may be related to airline passengers' aversion to itineraries that have legs in them that go the "wrong way" even when those itineraries are faster. Milestones that don't "matter" represent cost and schedule without real progress. Schedule regular milestones that have customer impact.
- Help the customer with the post-delivery environment
- Difficulties in incorporating Spacing milestones unevenly
creates progress perception
problems. Have more
milestones, and space
them fairly evenly.the deliverables into ongoing operations can affect the customer's perception of the quality of the deliverables. And anxiety about the coming chaos is often reflected in perceptions of progress. Even deliverables that are 100% compliant with requirements will take the blame for internal difficulties in incorporating them organizationally.
- Do whatever you can to make incorporation easy. Automate any required conversions and prepare for transition training and help. These efforts are most effective if they're in the plan from the beginning, but add them later if necessary.
As a sponsor or a senior manager, you're uniquely positioned to smooth out the experience of these ups and downs. Establish review processes that ensure that these pressure-management strategies are used throughout the organization. Project plans should have evenly spaced, frequent milestones that deliver real value early and often. And establish after-action reviews for projects that recently passed through crises to enable project team learning.
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Micromanagement is a common source of pressure. For insights on micromanagers and micromanaging, see "When Your Boss Is a Micromanager," Point Lookout for December 5, 2001; "There Are No Micromanagers," Point Lookout for January 7, 2004; "Are You Micromanaging Yourself?," Point Lookout for November 24, 2004; and "How to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager," Point Lookout for March 7, 2007.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
- And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
- When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.