Delivering large-scale change in organisations is tricky. When the chips are down and tensions are high, there can be pressure to put in long hours to get the project “over the line”. I’m sure most people reading this will have put in the occasional very late night or early morning at work. Arguably, there is nothing wrong with long hours in the short term, that is the reality of complex projects, yet left unchecked in the long term a worrying pattern could emerge.
I was going through a box of old stuff a few weeks ago and I came across an old end of year appraisal document from a long, long time ago. I remember the time vividly—I was travelling a lot around Europe as part of a project team, and long hours became the norm. There were tight deadlines—seemingly impossible deadlines at times—but I did what I could to ensure they were met. I still vividly remember working in my hotel room late one evening, being so engrossed in my work I forgot to eat (and by the time I realised it was midnight so the hotel’s restaurant had closed). I spent weeks in vibrant European cities and saw nothing other than hotels, conference rooms and airports.
On reflection, this was a formative time in my career. I learned a lot and I had a very supportive line manager. Yet, with the power of hindsight I wonder whether I had fallen into the trap of trying to solve underlying project and planning issues by just “working harder” and “working longer”. And a strange and potentially destructive pattern emerged: the more I worked, the more some members of the project team expected of me…
The Danger of “Project Heroes”
In times of pressure, a project hero will often emerge. They will work long and hard to keep the project on track, often making personal sacrifices to do so. I suppose we all play this role to an extent, but some people seem to fall into this pattern time and time again. Perhaps you recognise this pattern?
On the face of it, a project hero sounds like a good thing. Who wouldn’t want a hero on their team? Yet project heroism is only healthy if it’s occasional—if it’s used to deal with unforeseeable problems that crop up. Too often project heroes are compensating for poor planning or unrealistic decisions that have been made elsewhere. Perhaps a project schedule had been put together without consulting the relevant experts—and the team is now being pressured into sticking to it as if it were etched into stone. Is it ethical to insist that people cancel their vacations, work weekends and work until 11.30pm every day just to meet the arbitrary deadline that was plucked from thin air?
If there is a genuine business reason why the deadline is important, then of course we should look at innovative ways of achieving it. Yet, we should avoid immediately jumping into hero mode. When we pull in unsustainable long hours over long periods, we affect our own lives but we also hide the real organisational issue. We rob the organisation of its opportunity to learn. We make it seem like the deadline and resource plan was reasonable when in reality it was sheer fantasy.
An Alternative Approach
Arguably, a better and more ethical approach is to raise the red flag and raise it early. It is important to point out the issue with the project or plan and to offer options. Perhaps the date is achievable, with reduced scope. Or perhaps additional resource might help. Or perhaps we could consider some other form of iterative or incremental approach. By collaborating with our project colleagues we work out what is possible, what is viable and what is desirable.
By having these discussions up front we are transparent about the options, and the implications of those options. We point out the risks and allow our senior executives to make an informed choice. We encourage organisational learning, and hopefully the same issues won’t reoccur again in future.
Of course, in some cases where the project really is critical there will be no other options but to “work longer”, at least in the short term—and there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach. Yet we should ensure that we cultivate a culture where the organisation learns. Where the team collaborates to deliver, and then collaborates to ask “how can we ensure similar problems don’t reoccur”. Transparency, collaboration and constructive challenge are crucial.
What are your views on the topics in this post? Do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com