May 4, 2021 by Dymphna

T-Bomb: How to avoid the project death-cross

Truth Bomb Tuesday: By the time we recognise that change is needed, it’s often too late.

Ok, so I know a lot of my students have to manage projects and deal with people.

In fact, this is really most of the job. If you can do this, you’re halfway there. The remainder is strategy and a teensy bit of maths.

It’s why anyone can do it.

But if you are doing it, you’re managing deadlines and managing people – or at least managing your relationship with people.

So I thought I’d just jot down something I’ve been thinking about recently – I’m calling it the course-correction death cross.

And I think it explains why getting anything done in this world is difficult, or at least challenging.

So let me explain what it is.

So when you’re in charge of a project, or when you’re dealing with a person, at some point you’re probably going to need to “course-correct”.

This is when you’re give the project or the person a bit of a nudge to get things going in the right direction again.

So you can see that the civil works costs are blowing out a bit, so you go back to the drawing board and see if you can bring that element in under budget.

Or you might notice that your architect doesn’t respond to emails, and then when they do you see they’ve added a safari-themed disco lounge. And so you need to tune in with them to get them back on track.

Or you might find out that your project manager has a habit of swearing at the tradies and threatening them with knives. You need to intervene here and get them to pull their head in before all your tradies walk.

Getting people or projects back on track is what I mean by ‘course-correction’.

Now, the need for intervention, and your ability to intervene changes as you approach your deadline. And they change in exact opposite ways.

This is how it charts out:

So what this is saying here is that the need to course-correct in the early stages of a project isn’t so intense. Everyone’s feeling relaxed, there’s still a lot of time left on the clock. You feel that things will probably just work themselves out.

The project manager comes off a bit rough some times, but hey, maybe it’s just a phase.

However, as you get closer to your deadline, the pressure starts to build. People are starting to get a bit stressed. Those ‘quirks’ in your project manager have now escalated into a series of restraining orders. You feel an intense need to do something about it because it looks like the wheels are going to come off entirely.

However, your ability to do something about it is going in the other direction.

In the early days, it’s easy to course-correct. Finding a new project manager in the first few weeks of a project is easy. It doesn’t create that many problems. There’s a lot flexibility.

However, the closer you get to your deadline, the harder change becomes. You can’t just swap out project managers in the last few weeks of a project – not without creating a whole bunch of headaches.

So just when you are feeling the need for change the most is exactly when change is hardest.

This is the death-cross.

And so I think it’s a skill we need to develop as we lead projects and people for ourselves.

We need to be anticipating problems. Sure, something might not feel that urgent, but fast-forward a few months, and add a bit of stress in the mix, and how much of a problem does it look like then?

And we need to be pro-active in making changes. We need to be looking to make necessary changes while we still have the ability to execute them.

That means knowing that crisis-level responses might be necessary BEFORE things become a crisis.

So keep this dynamic in mind. Your need to make changes and your ability to make changes don’t move together.

Know that this dynamic exists.

And don’t let yourself get caught in a death-cross.