Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 52;   December 27, 2006:

Managing Pressure: Milestones and Deliveries

by

Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part III of a set of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.

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.

One of the Franklin Milestones on the Boston Post Road

In 1763, while Deputy Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin measured distances from Boston along the Boston Post Road. Workers following him erected milestones at each mile point. Pictured is is an earlier milestone in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.org.

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.

A little pressure does help, but most of us are under way more pressure than is helpful. And we can do something about that. Go to top Top  Next issue: Excuses, Excuses  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre 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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