The Impossible Deadline

Limes or Lemons?Another day, another question on a LinkedIn project management group discussion: “How to refuse your sponsor for the impossible deadline committed to by him?” Or, to put it another way, how do you tell him his lime is actually a lemon?

First of all, you aren’t refusing – you are simply calling his attention to reality. Good project managers are a force for truth. You can’t fit ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack, as Dolly Parton once said, and no one benefits from spilling a lot of flour all over the floor, trying to make it so.

Exploring Alternatives

Explain why the scope to be delivered cannot be done in the time frame the sponsor outlined; ask if it makes sense to cut some things out of scope; then ask if there is budget to add resources. If the sponsor wants to make it about you, reply that you are simply doing the math – the project will not succeed, as currently envisioned. Ask what was the basis for the timeline that he provided. The answer will probably be about lack of support for the project at senior levels, whether it’s said that way or not, or about the sponsor’s personal ambitions. If you’re not making any progress with the cost or scope legs of the triangle, ask if it makes more sense to cancel the project. At that point, he’ll either deflate or explode.

Consequences and Culture

If you simply try to overcome reality (you can’t) in order to please this sponsor (you won’t), you’ll end up as the scapegoat when it becomes obvious the project is going to be late. Better to take the abuse up front, and get whatever credit there is to be had for putting the organization first.

Of course, I say this recognizing that, in some cultures it isn’t easy to stand up to authority. Deference and obedience to the manager are valued over loyalty to the best interests of the organization. I’m describing what I would do, with my American upbringing and cultural values. But even in our culture, it takes a lot of personal integrity to do all of this, especially when the sponsor is an ambitious tyrant. Before signing on to be a project manager, do a gut check: how would you handle this situation? Because you will face it, if you manage projects as a career.

Leadership Lessons Learned from Bridgegate

Chris ChristieIf you don’t follow the news in the United States, you might not have heard about the growing “Bridgegate” political scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. To recap: a traffic jam was “engineered” by a senior member of his staff and several government appointees, allegedly as revenge for the mayor of Fort Lee, the city on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, refusing to endorse his re-election bid. Initially, the Governor laughed it off, but after Emails subpoenaed by the New Jersey legislature showed his deputy chief of staff had initiated the request, Christie fired her and several other key staff members. More investigations and subpoenas have followed, and the Governor, who no longer looks like a 2016 Presidential candidate, is spending much of his energy dealing with them.

While few project managers will ever get the kind of public scrutiny the Governor of New Jersey is receiving, there are some important lessons we should learn from his experience:

When a team member is accused of some wrongful act or abuse of power, take it seriously

You owe it to your customer and your team to respond professionally. Had the Governor, a former federal prosecutor, conducted his own investigation, this would be a completely different story.

Don’t try to downplay the consequences

The Governor mocked the legislators investigating the lane closures in a press conference, saying they had nothing better to do. In addition, many of the staff Emails released by investigators show a lack of compassion for the citizens impacted by the traffic jam. It was subsequently reported that a woman may have died because the ambulance transporting her to a hospital was delayed by the traffic jam. Christie felt compelled to defend himself in a later press conference, with “I am not a bully.”

Attempts to discredit the accuser nearly always backfire

A recent memo prepared by Christie’s staff, attacking former appointee David Wildstein after he claimed to have evidence implicating the Governor, has simply added to Christie’s public relation problems.

Develop good relationships that will see you through the bad times

The Governor cultivated his image as a tough leader by being combative, both with the press and with constituents. Now, some of the people that Christie alienated are recycling old accusations, including his alleged use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds for advertisements featuring himself and his family during the election campaign, and few of his fellow Republicans are rushing to his defense.

At some point, you have to either recover or step aside

There are at least five official investigations under way, and a growing number of civil lawsuits have been filed. The Governor’s office is now scrambling to cover the jobs of the staff people whom he fired, at the same time they are responding to investigators, subpoenas, and press inquiries. It is doubtful that they are working as effectively as before the scandal erupted. Several prominent politicians have called for Christie to step down from his position as Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, and less prominent public figures have suggested that he should resign as Governor. So far, that doesn’t look very likely; however, as more of the principals invoke their Fifth Amendment rights, the Governor may find he doesn’t have much time available to govern.

Crisis doesn’t build character; it simply exposes it. A code of ethics and professional conduct, such as the one promulgated by PMI, is an excellent resource for project managers. But the key lesson to learn is that you can’t manage your way out of a crisis; you have to lead.