It was a short week, with Thanksgiving, but I had time to think while stuck in traffic between Seattle and Portland. Somewhere around Centralia (yes, that’s really what it’s called, and it really is about half-way), it occurred to me that I’ve been seeing some common themes lately. Call them the three “ins;” indecision, inactivity, and indifference. Each takes a toll on one or more tasks, adding delays and uncertainty, forcing re-work, or otherwise stretching the schedule. Even if a task isn’t on the critical path, every delay has an impact on those tasks already in progress. Resources get overloaded, alternatives become more limited. Eventually, the schedule becomes unachievable.
Indecision is sometimes driven by uncertainty, but more often, it’s a failure to get the right people engaged. My colleague, James Reed, likes to ask, “Do we have the right people in the room?” There are three basic models for getting a decision: have the decision maker in the room, have the decision maker empower those who will be in the room, or have those who were in the room go to the decision maker, explain their perception of the issue, and try to get a decision based on a possibly less-than-complete understanding of the question at hand. In other words, introducing uncertainty, where none needed to be found. If you think a meeting with ten people sounds expensive, try holding that same meeting a second time, the following week, with an eleventh person who should have been there the first time.
Inactivity can have many causes, from absent team members to sudden demands from higher priority projects or operational situations. Sometimes, it might be a failure to communicate, or missing information. In any case, tasks don’t get started on time. Tasks that aren’t started on time are going to finish late, unless you neglect another task in order to catch up, which simply daisy-chains the impact. Of course, in the modern “lean” workplace, a worker who isn’t working on a task will be assigned a new one, and the next thing you know, you have a resource conflict where none needed to exist.
Indifference is probably the most frustrating, because it calls into question the sense of urgency being felt by others on the team. I won’t try to tell you that everyone should be enamored of every project they work on, but all those Gallic shrugs eventually add up. You have every right to not have a preference, one way or the other, but let’s try to avoid expressing it as indifference to the outcome. Apathy is contagious, and antipathy will follow closely.
Every project has a critical path, and every task in the critical path has inputs and at least one output. Keeping a project on schedule sometimes comes down to gathering those inputs, initiating the tasks, and driving to an output, all on time. In other words, having the project manager act as a taskmaster. It’s not the fun part of the job, but it’s the part we have to be willing to do from time to time, in order to keep everyone doing their parts.