Doing Whatever It Takes

2013-01-27 10.31.38

This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.

Sometime you need to do whatever it takes; to go to extremes; to work seven days a week; work through the night; bend and sometimes break the rules.  But not all the time, as a manager you need to know when to ask for heroic effort; not ask very often; be prepared to go that extra mile, or ten, yourself too.  I’ve asked for heroic efforts less than a dozen times in 20 years, but these times have always been critical to the business and sometimes career defining moments for me and the team.

Unfortunately ‘doing what it takes’ often means panic, not looking after the team, breaking rules that should be kept, making too many excuses, not learning.  This is what I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Understand what and why
  2. Get the team together
  3. Set expectations
  4. Keep the team small and focused
  5. Protect the team
  6. Establish a culture of service
  7. Look after the team
  8. Don’t make excuses for breaking the rules
  9. Balance short term progress against long term success
  10. Don’t abuse the successful team

Let’s take a look at these ten tips in more detail:

  1. Understand what and why, it’s critical that everyone in the team understands what they are being asked to achieve and most importantly why it justifies heroic efforts.  The why is all too often neglected, for example sometimes a deadline seems arbitrary to the team, but is critical to establishing trust with a customer, or influencing a tipping point that will lead to a major sale.  Sometimes when forced to defend the reason why heroic effort is required the critical need dissipates altogether.
  2. Get the team together, communication overheads, misunderstandings, missed dependencies and a lack of appreciation of other peoples challenges kill projects.  Getting everyone around a table in a war-room is often the solution; keeping them in a war-room all the time is often a mistake
  3. Set expectations, once everyone’s together, set expectations, make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them, the level of commitment, their presence in the war-room, their behaviour and make sure they know what they can expect in return in terms of protection, care and reward
  4. Keep the team small and focused, the smaller the team the better, everyone on the team needs to be essential, strong preference should be people who do, one person needs to lead; everyone else needs to know that they are there to serve, not to ‘manage’.  The small team needs to get the support required from the rest of their network, they are the point of the spear, they do the hard work, but the head and shaft need to play their part too
  5. Protect the team, being part of a critical activity is scary, the team needs to know they are protected.  They are expected to succeed, but risks will be taken, rules will be broken, people will be upset, budgets will be burst, failure is always a possibility, existing responsibilities can’t intrude.
  6. Establish a culture of service, the team members themselves need to support each other, there’s no point taking a “my bit works” attitude.  Project managers, used to being in charge, need to switch to being there to serve.  There’s little time for ‘management’ only time for strong leadership and doing.
  7. Look after the team, the team needs to feel cared for, well fed, occasionally rested, well supported; stress needs to be shared and transformed into challenge and excitement.
  8. Don’t make excuses for breaking the rules, specific rules that makes sense in general will need to be broken, but not casually.  To defend against casual rule breaking principles need to be clear to everyone in the team, stick to the principles, but break the rules.
  9. Balance short term progress against long term success, the team needs to pace itself, which depends very much on timescales, “doing what it takes” for 24 hours needs little pacing, but for 24 days it needs a lot.  Sustained ‘heroic effort’ for more than a few of weeks is probably best managed as a project, it’s too long for sustained maximum effort.
  10. Don’t abuse the successful team, it’s all too easy to try and build on success, to keep the team together and try more cycles of heroic effort, it rarely works.  The team starts to burn out, they feel ‘used’, the corners that have been cut, the rules broken, the existing responsibilities ignored start to accumulate; go carefully.

My strong preference is to reward the team mostly for their effort, not success.  Rewarding success can lead to dysfunction, cutting too many corners, unethical behaviour, erosion of principles.  I like to keep rewards unexpected, meaningful but moderate.  It’s always good practice to reward the neglected family as much as the pampered team members.

These tips are not a recipe, none of the activities I’ve led followed the same pattern or required all ten of the tips, but they do provide a rough template.

For a great example of an activity that took the “do whatever it takes” route to success check out the example of Facebook’s project to create 700 million Look Back videos.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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