Have you ever watched kids attempting to run up an escalator that is coming down?
It looks like a fun game — but unless the escalator is super short, they rarely reach the top. Usually, they give up and ride the escalator back down.
The same thing happens on project teams — minus the fun.
When the team is operating in a difficult environment — with conflicting priorities, tight deadlines, insufficient resources, and inadequate support — it’s a lot like trying to run up a very long escalator.
They’re not going to get to the top before they exhaust themselves — and eventually, they will more or less give up on the project.
That’s why it’s so important to take concrete actions that set our teams up for success.
1. Say NO to Competing Priorities
Competing priorities are one of the biggest challenges faced by project managers and their teams.
By failing to explicitly say no to some ideas, leaders inadvertently create a culture of fast action, where the default decision is to press ahead.
This is a sure recipe for overstretched teams, failing projects, and initiatives that are misaligned with organizational strategy.
Instead of defaulting to yes, take time to really consider:
- Is this project a priority?
- Does it contribute to the overall organizational strategy?
- Will the benefits outweigh the costs to other priorities and initiatives?
Knowing when to say no is a powerful leadership skill. Exercise it on behalf of your team, and enable them to focus on the projects that bring the most value to your organization.
2. Do Your Prep Work
Before embarking on a new initiative, take time to determine whether your organization has the capacity to take on another project.
- Have you validated your strategy?
- Do you have a realistic plan to execute?
- Does the team have bandwidth for an additional project?
- Do you have the skills in-house to assess and lead your transformation?
- Do you need an outside perspective to help you identify your blindspots?
Asking these questions before committing to a new project helps you lay the groundwork your team will need to be successful.
3. Set Reasonable Deadlines
Leaders sometimes think that imposing a fixed date is motivational. In my experience, it can actually undermine a real opportunity for organizational transformation.
A high-pressure, fixed deadline can compromise your team’s ability to be successful with the project. To hit the deadline, they may need to reduce the scope, rush key elements of the implementation, or skimp on vital pieces of the project rollout.
Of course, sometimes we have no choice but to deliver by a fixed date. But if timelines are tight, it’s important to be flexible with scope and cost. Project teams often work under both date and cost constraints, which limits their resources and negatively impacts quality and project success.
Putting the team in a situation where they need to take shortcuts on quality in order to deliver is a fast road to declining morale. On top of the intense deadline pressure they’re already experiencing, the team will struggle with the feeling that they’re not doing their best work. If your organization routinely operates with tight constraints and aggressive deadlines, it’s likely that you will lose your best people or they will lose their enthusiasm.
Keep Your Team Off the Down Escalator
We set our teams up for success when we take time to create an environment where the priorities are well defined, resources are appropriately allocated, support is in place, and the tools and approach are clear.
Without this environment, teams are operating on a down escalator — running hard to keep up and unlikely to reach their destination.
In contrast, when teams are aligned on priorities and have the resources they need to do their best work, they gain a degree of focus and efficiency that serves to bring more projects to a success resolution.