It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      June 2013 Full Moon Edition      

Avoid Over Committing Yourself and the Team

Project management success is rooted in discipline.  Project management is not complex, it is simple. Simple, yet difficult. The difficulty lies in having the self and organizational discipline to do the right thing, the common sense thing.

Growing up I would frequently put more on my plate than I could eat and my mother would say “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”  This is true for a lot of organizations when it comes to the inability to consistently deliver consistent project management success.  They attempt to accomplish way too much given their resources, time or organizational constraints.

Number 4 on my top ten list of project management success factors is to “Avoid over committing yourself and the team.”  Simple advice.  Yet difficult.  Most of us have a desire to please, a desire to exceed expectations and frankly a desire to stay employed.

So when the inevitable challenge of more work, additional requirements or less resources shows up, we tend to accept it with the intention of working harder and smarter to overcome this new challenge.  This may have a chance for success in the short term or in spurts.  Unfortunately, outside of short term circumstances, this is a recipe for disaster.  The result is we work longer, we make more mistakes and we forget things.

In the project management arena, we don’t take time for good risk management, we don’t give stakeholders proper attention, we don’t do team building, change management is just talked about, documentation becomes poor or non-existent. 

Short term impacts of these are often negligible, but as the project progresses a price will be paid.

When we are over committed a fire fighting environment is created and we tend to run from emergency to emergency.  As time progresses this over commitment also creates a culture where people discount the importance of anything that is not an emergency.  For example… planning is not an emergency and because it’s not it doesn’t get done (or done well) thus creating more emergencies. 

Additionally, when this environment exists, it creates, attracts or self selects people that like the fire fighting environment.  These fire fighters make a culture change to a more stable, planning oriented environment an even greater challenge.  I knew a leader in a company that loved to say “this is a high pressure, dynamic environment.”  Translation for his company was really we react to circumstances, we don’t apply leadership and discipline to create and manage circumstances.

How do you avoid over committing?

1.    Communicate the consequences of being over committed.  The reality is there is a school of thought among some leaders that you cut resources until you get a reaction.  Meg Whitman, current CEO of HP, former CEO of eBay, basically said in her book “The Power of Manyshe cuts until people justify their position.  It is your responsibility to communicate (boldly, continually and graciously) the consequences of being over committed... justify your position!

Communication is more than just telling and sharing data.  I just read How to Get People to Do Stuff: Master the art and science of persuasion and motivation by Susan Weinschenk and this book assembles in a good, easy to read way a lot of human behavior skills necessary for project managers.

2.    Prioritize – Number 5 on my top ten project management success factors is “Know how to prioritize and prioritize everything”

3.    Ensure Calculated Failure.  If you and your team are over committed some form of failure is your destiny.  You can plan for and choose this failure or you can have un-calculated failure, where you don’t know what will fail.  You can read a previous article on calculated failure here.  When a calculated failure occurs you should be ready to exploit it to change the system for the better.

Keeping your team and yourself from being over committed is a continual challenge and part of the project management landscape.  You must learn to embrace and overcome this challenge, it is not going away.


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