It’s commonly said that you should under-promise and over-deliver. It starts with the promise. Never submit a budget that you can’t hit. Never promise a date that you can’t meet. Never commit to something you know cannot be done.
The earliest opportunity you have to drive success is at the beginning. Think of a project where everything is delivered in six months for a million dollars. If everyone thought you could do it in four months for five hundred thousand dollars, you look like you failed. But if they thought it would take seven months and cost a bit more than a million, you look like a winner. Often, the difference is in developing a realistic expectation of “what is good.”
Defining what good looks like is the single biggest thing you can do to ensure your success. If every one of your project sponsors has a different expectation for what you are trying to achieve, you likely cannot meet all of their combined objectives regardless of the outcome you create. However, if you set appropriate expectations up front, they may be temporarily disappointed but they will have a realistic picture of what they will get.
There’s a catch to this. You cannot under-promise to such a degree that it is plainly obvious that you sandbagged the project. If you promise a year but deliver in a month, you simply look like you didn’t know what was going to happen. If you ask for a million dollars but only need 10% of that, you look like you didn’t know what you were doing. Being off by 90%, even to the positive, loses you credibility even more than being off by 10% to the bad side.
All of this is about credibility. Do you know what you are doing and can you run a project to the right outcomes? You have to start with realism.
There’s a fine line required for team chemistry when balancing short-term and long-term success. Short-term success is driven by concrete and measurable actions. You can achieve short-term success through individual heroics. Long-term success is dependent upon a strong team.
Over any defined period of time, you can do everything you want by trusting in a few key individuals. You can hand things off to them and just let them do their thing. Individuals within the framework are usually going to color outside the lines and generally do things with a single-minded focus on the outcome.
When planning for the long-term, heroics go against the team grain. You need to have confidence across the board for achieving long-term stability and success. Any given individual contributor could leave which would throw the balance out of alignment. A team-oriented view means that you likely will not have the same degree of peak performance, but you will also be managed against troughs. Consistency becomes the key.
As a manager, it’s your job to balance these needs. Knowing when to go back and forth between the worlds is how you achieve peak performance. Ultimately, if the team collectively knows what you are trying to achieve they will help with the balancing act.
The best managers I have ever worked for made the job look easy. As a rule, they did not fly around from one emergency to the next. They calmly went about the job in front of them. However, they always had one eye toward the future, keeping their team ahead of the next crisis before it happened.
This same behavior of looking toward the future, allowed them to focus on their people. The best managers I have worked for believed in fostering and promoting talent. They believe that a team is best when they are all in it together. No one gets to be the team hero, just as no one gets to be the team zero.
Running a team smoothly means fewer opportunities to show your success in the line of fire. But then again, you aren’t causing a hail of bullets to head in your direction.
It’s always better to be the manager with the department that just runs. Dealing with crises every day, week, and month is how you burn out yourself and your team. The problems will always come around, don’t make more than you need.
I come from a background where problems are big, hairy, obvious things that need to be fixed with a hammer. I was brought in only when a problem was obvious and fundamental. A solution that solved it would be both noticeable and verifiable. Recognition is often part of solving the big, hairy problems.
Less sexy are the deep-rooted problems lurking in the heart of an organization. Usually, these are problems that cause inconvenience. The solutions to these problems can often involve a lot of visibility and pain before they take hold. Much like an early-stage tumor, these problems are not yet causing real issues but if left to linger they can lead to massive issues down the road.
When the solution will cause more pain than the current problem, the can is often kicked down the road. The problem continues to linger and fester, waiting for its opportunity to strike.
It turns out, the pain of solving it today is less than the pain of waiting for the issue to become significant. However, the political calculus usually works out where a manager decides not to deal with it yet. Let it be someone else’s problem. The permanent record only includes actions, it rarely includes problems untouched for the next person.
I hope I never let things sit for the next person. It is better to deal with things than wait around. The game of Duck, Duck, Goose always catches someone. There’s still a chance it could be you even if you wait.
One of the frustrating things in life is not getting credit for the work you do. Married couples know this to be true. I still feel the need to be praised for emptying the dishwasher without being asked. Parents know this to be true as it isn’t until later in their lives that kids truly can appreciate the impact their parents had on them. Anyone with a job knows the frustration when their boss takes credit for their work.
Credit is one of those issues that is extremely difficult to navigate because it comes in many forms and often follows a hierarchy. The boss gets credit for the work of her team. The CEO gets credit for the successes of everyone in the firm. There’s nothing either right or wrong with this system, just the way it usually works.
The desire for credit comes from the need for our work to be rewarding. No one wants to work most of their life at a task that isn’t appreciated. If you develop software, you want users to appreciate your systems. If you run a bank, you want customers to trust you with their money. If you answer phones, you don’t want everyone you talk to complaining about you.
When we have big successes, whether individually or as part of a team, we really want that success to be recognized. Big successes don’t come along every day. But the thing about credit is that the more it is shared, the less anyone actually gets.
All of the above is true for a view of credit as something that comes from above. I’ve developed a different philosophy though:
The most valuable credit you can receive is the type that is never spoken.
The credit that comes from being trusted, given the hard tasks, asked for help, and generally counted on to be there in tough times is better than anything else. Reflected credit cannot be taken away because it’s not just one-time. It comes from building trusting relationships that makes all work better.
The easiest expectations to fill are the expectations that don’t exist. Just because an expectation isn’t written down doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist. Managers will often have a deadline in their head for delegated tasks even if it isn’t clearly communicated. But for some projects, the schedule is firmly in the hands of the project team.
A schedule with no deadlines or commitments will always be the easiest to meet. If you don’t have to do anything, then there is no point when you can be behind. Every Red/Amber/Green report can be shown as green. Every status update can be given an “everything on track” statement.
Eventually, the process will always catch-up though. Someone will get around to asking “so what have you been doing all this time.” The answer cannot be that you were just having meetings and developing a plan. The moment the question is asked “what you have been doing,” an expectation has officially been established. Unfortunately for you, that expectation will be something better than where things are at.
It’s always best to establish firm expectations up front even if they are aggressive and cause you to go Amber/Red on your updates. At least that shows that you are trying and tracking. That’s how things get done.
The work we do is not as simple as a job description written down on paper. It’s not just about showing up at 8a and leaving at 5p. There are two very different parts to how every person goes about their job:
- What the actual job is.
- Their perspective on the best way of accomplishing that job.
The first is external to the person. Almost all of us receive our direction for what we are expected to achieve from some external source. It is possible to be very clear what we are expected to deliver.
The second is internal to the person. How do we choose to go about completing the job that we have been asked to perform? A direction that we choose for ourselves will often determine how successful we are perceived to be based on the expectations of others – even when the outcomes would have been the same regardless.
Types of internal perspectives include:
- Churn and burn: Work as quickly as possible to just get the job done at whatever level of quality is required. Work comes in, output goes out. There isn’t a lot of thought to doing things differently.
- Fill the hours: Complete the work provided in no more and no less than the number of hours assigned in the day. This may mean being inefficient with how the work is performed but the goal is to blend into the background.
- Learn and grow: Take on the work provided and determine ways to do it more efficiently. Often this will include taking on new requirements as you gain availability.
- Superstar to the stars: Look good at everything you do. Do it better than others, get all the attention you deserve, seek out that annual plaque for best performer. It may not matter how good you actually are as long as you are recognized as great!
- Quiet greatness: Everything needs to be done the best way possible. The best reward is a job well done. You aren’t seeking personal credit, but you do want everything to be the best way possible.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of perspectives that a person may have in their job. Humans carry more nuance than just one way of doing work. Sometimes we may even have one perspective on one task and a very different one in another. It may have to do with comfort level or something else entirely.
It’s also important to know that none of the above are “the best” perspective for any given person or job. Sometimes you want someone that will churn and burn and sometimes you absolutely need to avoid quiet greatness. A person who excels at one job may not fit well in another.