We would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy New Year! We hope that the start of 2021 brings health, joy, prosperity and happiness for you, your family and your teams.

When it comes to project management, the main challenge we hear about over and over again is that teams are struggling to deliver on time. Staff is unengaged, people are getting burned out, estimates are wrong, teams blame themselves for the delays, employees quit. If that sounds familiar to you, chances are the root cause of the problem lies in the lack of trust.

In fact, If you catch yourself assigning due dates on your teams’ tickets with the sole goal to keep them accountable, that’s a clear sign you’re already heading in this direction.

Assigning deadlines for each individual task can have a disruptive effect on your team’s motivation and engagement. This constant pressure and extra stress usually lead to delays, poor results and burnout.

There is a much better approach to consider here, which will enable you to hit your goals while boosting your team’s confidence and still allowing a little bit of subjectivity so that they are encouraged to go the extra mile to achieve exceptional results.

You Have to Shift Your Perspective to Be Able to Meet Your Commitments

If your team feels as though they are constantly under strain, or that they are over-worked and yet still under-delivering, chances are you’re putting expectations on them they’re not able to meet.

Our job as managers is to set achievable goals, empower our teams and build up their self-confidence by enabling them to do their jobs at their own pace. We have to provide an environment of trust and psychological safety.

Empowering your team comes with granting them their independence – they must feel your confidence that they will complete their work as soon as possible while maintaining high quality.

Let’s dig deeper into the practice of assigning a due date to every ticket on the board. If every single one of your work items has a strict deadline, what you’re communicating is that you require a 100% level of certainty that something will be finished on a certain date. That’s not achievable.

By needing such stringent deadlines, you’re stressing out your team. Not only that but putting a deadline on each piece of work will most likely end up in missing your targets consistently. I assume you’d even reassign a new due-date once you see you’re late and the same old story repeats itself again and again.

There is no model that provides a 100% certainty that something will happen in the future. You’re managing unrealistic expectations.

What would be the main reason that you would attempt to enforce this kind of stringency on your team? Do you hear a little voice in your head going ‘I don’t trust them. They are always late, I have to set deadlines to keep them accountable’? This is classic micromanagement and, in reality, it isn’t helping anyone. 

If we as managers don’t trust in our team’s ability to deliver on time, we start a cycle of pushing them to work harder. As a result, they get more and more overburdened, they get less and less motivated and engaged.

If staff feel like they can never and will never be able to meet your expectations, they may realize their only option is to resign.

That’s not a supportive environment, in fact the problem is bigger than that. By focusing on each individual’s performance, you are missing the main point – to be able to deliver on your commitments, you have to optimize your workflow performance. 

The Secret to Avoid the Vicious Circle of Constantly Missing Your Commitments

There are two main points you need to consider in order to set and manage realistic goals. 

First, does your workflow perform efficiently, or in other words, do you manage blockers, dependencies, bottlenecks etc. effectively to make sure you reduce the waiting time to a minimum?

And second, do you understand your capacity? It’s probably worth looking at the targets that you are giving your team or they are setting for themselves. You need to understand how much time a certain piece of work needs to be done (and here, I’m referring to the time your work needs to be delivered, not the effort time you believe it will take to be developed. Yes, there is a difference!).

The secret to avoiding the vicious circle of constantly missing your commitments is simple. 

Leave your team to do what you’ve hired them to do and stop holding them accountable for meeting arbitrary deadlines.

You have to drive the management in a direction that ensures people are both motivated and happy. That’s how they become more empowered, more invested in your business and that’s how they do everything in their power to go the extra mile to achieve amazing results. 

Now, you might be wondering: “But how are we going to meet our project deadlines if we don’t hold people accountable?”. I’m glad you asked.

Managing Your Commitments Effectively without Holding Teams Accountable to Deadlines

Instead of artificially assigning due-dates to your teams’ tickets, first, you have to understand and embrace your limits. How quickly is your team actually capable of delivering results? The best way to approach this goal is to analyze your performance.

Making forecasts with the cycle time scatterplot to spot assigning due dates

When it comes to cycle time analysis, the Cycle Time Scatterplot is an essential tool to have on hand. This chart visualizes all your completed tasks as dots scattered on a plot. Each task comes with the finished date and the time it has taken to complete.

The horizontal dotted lines stretching across the graph are called percentile lines. We use percentiles to understand how much time we need to finish our work. For example, the 50th percentile on our Scatterplot points to 8 days. This means that half of the tasks so far have taken up to 8 days to be finished. Now, we can say that there is a 50% chance of finishing any work item in LESS than 8 days. We also know that there is an 85% chance of delivering any item in up to 10 days.

A note before we move on – if you observe a drastic gap between the percentiles, chances are you’re dealing with an unstable and unpredictable system. In our Sustainable Predictability digital course, we build up the foundation of a flow-based system and explore the sources of inefficiencies and the opportunities for improvement. This will enable you to establish a predictable system and deliver on your commitments, every time.

Manage your work in progress to stop assigning due dates

Now that we know our capability, we have to map our current work in progress against it. Looking into the Aging Chart, we can see how our current work in progress moves through the process compared to our past performance.

The colored zones draw the timeline of how our previous tickets moved through the workflow. The green zone represents the 50th percentile – and it ends in 8 days. The orange zone represents the 85th percentile, and it points to 10 days.

Now, the only thing you should be accountable for is to manage the work effectively (not the workers). Follow up on everything that crosses the yellow zone (which has moved above the 50th percentile) because it has taken more time than half of the tasks completed so far. The main point here is, instead of asking ‘What is taking so long?’, ask ‘Is there anything I (or anyone else in the team) can do to make sure we enable the work to move further’. Carefully select your language here, as this decision could either make or break one’s motivation.

Using this approach you not only keep a finger on the pulse of the work and make sure you act quickly if any impediments arise along the way, but you also enable a supportive environment, in which you can have the right conversation at the right time to get back on track.

Pushing People to Work Harder Is Never the Solution

Keep your focus on managing the flow of work and not the workers. If your team is already working on your tickets, there is no point in rushing them. If your data says that you need 10 days to deliver something with 85% certainty, why would you expect it to be done in 5 days instead? The chances of you meeting that commitment will have dropped significantly. Understand your team’s limits, and be mindful of them. 

Pushing people to work harder is never the solution. There are only two things you manage to achieve by forcing teams to go beyond their limits:

  1. You intentionally overburden your people which, in terms of outcomes, results in low-quality results and unhappy people who eventually quit. 
  2. You set up unrealistic expectations that you most probably won’t meet. What you essentially do is set yourself late at the very moment you start your work. 

What we need to focus on in order to improve our performance is to attack the sources of inefficiency in our systems. This is how we can reduce the time we waste. Then, once we achieve an optimal delivery speed, there is no point in trying to reduce this further, the goal now will be to sustain the predictability in our system. At the same time, you’ll be building an environment of support and continuous improvement.

Having due-dates on the cards only makes sense if it is required by your customer, when there is a contract with penalties, or where the cost of delay is high. In these instances, we need to plan ahead of time to ensure we keep our commitment. In our Sustainable Predictability digital course, we go deeper into all of the practices you need to follow to make sure that you have very high confidence in delivering on time.

Remember, the more trust you place in your team, the more likely they are to impress you. Due dates aren’t going to help either your working environment or your team’s ability to deliver on time – these goals can all be achieved by you looking inward and bringing your approach to management to the next level.

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