The other night I had a nightmare. I had been asked by a friend to watch over his house and collect the mail while he was out of town, for a year. I agreed, understanding that my tasks would be to water the lawn and take mail into the house. We shook hands and my friend then left.
When I entered the house on the first day, I heard noises on the lower level. Going into that part of the house, I noticed that my friend had a large number of cages and tanks full of pets, many of whom looked hungry. I texted my friend, and he said as if just remembering, “Oh yeah, if you could just feed them, that would be great!” I sighed but just got to work feeding the animals. I then looked out into the backyard and saw kennels, a cattery, and a small aviary full of animals, all in the same spot. I texted my friend again, who promptly said, “All you have to do is just feed a couple of extra animals, that’s it.” Severely annoyed at this point, I hear a noise behind me. Three elderly women in wheelchairs were complaining and threatening to sue me because they hadn’t been given a decent meal in weeks.
I woke with a start. The creep of responsibility that wasn’t communicated and yet left in my hands by my friend had disturbed me. It made me reflect on how to work with teams, and more importantly how to communicate expectations to others.
If you have ever been on a project before you are likely aware of the concept of scope creep. This is when your original planned project gradually grows from new, unforeseen requirements that come up during the project lifecycle. It’s also possible to see responsibilities creep into a job the same way and with the same level of stress. This often happens when a particular job or set of tasks has been assigned that hasn’t been defined or quantified, so the amount of effort required to complete those tasks is unknown. When you add a hard deadline to those tasks, the stress begins to build. Then add a lack of support from peers or leadership, and you have set an employee up to fail. And while failure isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a bad thing, no one likes to fail. Your employee will then become disengaged, and the tasks will suffer.
Of course, the reality of any quickly growing organization or industry is the lack of certainties. Often real effort isn’t known until the tasks have been properly scoped, and the full scope of the job is defined along the way. There are three ways to handle this in the Project world, and each has its pros and cons:
- Increase the number of resources dedicated to the tasks to bring them in on time
- Reduce the scope of tasks so only critical tasks are completed within the given timeframe
- Shift the due date and allow for more time to complete the tasks.
Increasing the number of resources seems like a great idea on paper, but doesn’t always translate to more efficient work completed. Anyone new coming in will need time to familiarize themselves with the state of the tasks at hand, and that time will have little impact on the overall effort being put in. If done early enough in the process, this solution can work, but generally, when you know you are in trouble you are likely too late to add additional resources and have them be significant contributors to success.
Reducing the scope of work is an excellent solution if the effort in place includes a lot of features that are not critical. Often the problem is determining those critical tasks, and just how critical. To this solution, I would recommend following the advice of Steve Jobs and knowing when to say “no” to features so you have a solid, distilled release that can be completed within the given timeframe. It may not have every bell and whistle you wanted, but you will have a solid accomplishment for which your employees are proud.
Shifting the due date is always the least favorable option for a lot of reasons. Often tasks that have a hard deadline mean they are mission-critical for some other project or initiative to take off, which in turn continues a cascade effect that can throw a lot of business initiatives into uncertainty. That being said, if you need an extension, do not sacrifice the health and welfare of your employees to avoid giving one. You may get this set of tasks out the door on time, but lose some good employees to other firms and all the experience they gained in completing the tasks with them.
Getting back to my analogy, yes, I would have helped my buddy with all the tasks not previously disclosed, but he wouldn’t be my buddy much longer. I also would have avoided that scenario in the future, flat-out refusing to help my buddy again. It’s important to understand the value of the person doing the task is greater than the tasks themselves. The knowledge they gain while completing them is always reusable, and you will want that experience on your team for any new, similar tasks. Value your people and their well-being, and your business will thrive. Sacrifice those people for short-term business goals will ultimately sabotage your business position.