Under pressure everything becomes fluid

There is a misunderstanding that under pressure people perform better. Pressure to a certain degree is fine and can have a positive impact on performance, because people become aware of the fact that things have to get done. But too much pressure will have a negative effect on the quality of output. And if that happens the probability of rework at later stages in the project goes up significantly.

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Credit: Pixabay

“Nobody works better under pressure. They just work faster” –Brian Tracy

There is a misunderstanding that under pressure people perform better. Pressure to a certain degree is fine and can have a positive impact on performance, because people become aware of the fact that things have to get done. But too much pressure will have a negative effect on the quality of output. And if that happens the probability of rework at later stages in the project goes up significantly.

Under pressure everything becomes fluid. In other words, when hitting deadlines becomes the primary driver and focus, deliverables will eventually get done, but oftentimes with lack of quality. People start to demonstrate irrational behavior, remove standards and constraints, and go the extra mile to get the job done with making sacrifices. This makes sense, because in the devils’ triangle of project scope (quality), schedule and cost, the latter two are fixed, and the only variable that can move is scope.

When the project schedule is aggressive and tight, the risk of a balloon effect is high. At the start of the project, people believe they have tons of time to complete the work. You actually see the opposite happening. People are focused on scope and quality of output, instead of schedule. But as we go, those two variables start to shift.

What can you do as project manager to mitigate the ‘risk of pressure’?

1. Build a hierarchy of schedules that reflect the milestones, dependencies, tasks and deliverables

That sounds simple, but in reality people struggle to build meaningful schedules. They need to be granular enough for the level you report status. You need to be able to communicate the schedule. Many project managers are challenged to find the right level of detail. If there is too much or too little, nobody else than the project manager looks at the schedule. I would recommend to use 3 schedules. One for the executive level that you use for steering committees and CXO. One for the program or project level. And one at the team level. You build them top down, and validate them bottom up by assessing the work and estimates against the time line

2. Communicate the schedule and report accurate status

How many times have you been in projects, where you knew there was some sort of schedule, but you did not know the details, nor did you have access to it? It happens more than you think and if it does, you can rightfully wonder if there is one. Project managers must communicate the schedule and status at a minimum on a weekly basis at the project and team level. For the executive level and CXO it can be bi-weekly to monthly. Status reports have to be accurate and complete. But how do you know that you something is accurate? For deliverables and tasks that are on the critical path you want to do cross-checks to mitigate the accuracy risk

3. Paint the bigger picture

When people perform under pressure, they tend to loose the big picture. Although you want them to be in the zone for optimal performance, they need to be made aware of what is happening around them. They need to know what is coming up next, and how they impact that with their current output or lack of output

4. Facilitate daily scrum meetings to set focus, priority and urgency

When the going gets tough, the though gets going. You cannot be early enough to start with daily scrum meetings. I am using the word ‘scrum’ to refer to a daily stand-up meeting at the team level, where each and everyone is present and provides input on the schedule and status. The project manager and solution architects are on point to resolve issues on the spot and to keep the work flowing. 

5. Open up your toolkit and be creative

When that deadline is looming and smiling in your face, you want to do a step back as project manager and assess, reflect and adjust. It is the only way, to let your creative mind go and provide new and better mechanisms to get the finish line with the best output possible. The worse thing you can do is to get hooked into the pressurized momentum as well. If that happens, it could be game over

Every project gets under pressure. If it hasn’t, it probably wasn’t a real project, meaning there was tons of time to deliver. Project managers need to be aware of this and understand that under pressure everything becomes fluid. When that happens it is time to roll up the sleeves and apply specific techniques to bring the game home with the right level of quality. Most of these techniques center around better and more timely communication, detailed work schedules, ad-hoc actions to keep things moving forward, and creativity.

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