Corporate America today is rife with two negative behaviors that can lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration. These behaviors are the "hurry-up-and-wait syndrome," in which you hurry to do something and then find that it was not an emergency after all, and the "wait-and-hurry-up disorder," in which something has been left to the very last minute, causing it to become an emergency even though it never needed to be. The most important step in managing these two behaviors is to learn to recognize when the behaviors are occurring. This means recognizing the behaviors in yourself as well as in others! Project managers are not always innocent bystanders. They are often the perpetrators of these behaviors.
"I need this new specification done immediately," says the client. "No problem," replies the project manager. "It will add a couple of extra days to the schedule. I will stop work on feature X and ask that engineer to work on the new specification instead. As soon as it's finished, I'll email it to you for approval, and then we can submit it to the change control board before the end of the week."
This is a great example of a project manager taking decisive action to deal with a client emergency and responding to a request as fast as possible. The project manager delivers the specification two days later. The client is emailed the specification, and the project manager follows up with a phone call to ask the client to review it as soon as possible so that it can be submitted for change control. The project manager wants to get any schedule changes finalized as early as possible in the project life cycle to minimize the impact on the team.
Days go by, and there is no word from the client. The project manager makes numerous phone calls and gets the runaround from the client. Finally, the client says that though his company had discussed the change, they had not really decided whether they needed it. Consequently, the project manager has wasted hours attempting contact, modifying the project schedule to reflect the two days needed to write the specification, and updating the engineer's schedule to reflect the two-day delay. The project is now two days behind schedule. The "emergency" turned out to be a false alarm. Few clients believe that they can be the cause of any wasted time on a project, but it is often the case. The hurry-up-and-wait syndrome is extremely irritating for even the most effective project manager. How do you know whether a request that is "urgent" is really urgent? Unfortunately, you often don't know. But you can start to figure out that some people always want things now. You can also start to see emerging patterns from people who ask for everything they may need rather than what they do need.
You will experience the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome not only from clients, but also from senior managers and corporate officers. You may spend an entire weekend writing a report that your manager asked for at 4 o'clock Friday afternoon and must be delivered by 10 o'clock Monday morning. Then, you find that no one reads the report. How do you feel? Frustrated? Angry? How do you think your team members will feel if you start to do this to them? It is not very motivating to work with this kind of false pressure.
The perpetrators of hurry-up-and-wait use this technique to control others. They may not be consciously aware that they are trying to control you, but this is what it amounts to. They use this technique to force people to bend to their will. The request is often presented as something that someone else, someone much more senior and important, "must" have. The requester may tell you that the consequences will be dire if the deadline isn't met. They are scaring you into doing what they want. You are afraid not to deliver on it because if it really is an emergency, perhaps you will be fired or demoted for causing a disaster. It is often the case that if you ask the person who supposedly needs this thing so desperately, he knows nothing about it. Sometimes, a person is trying so hard to impress senior management that he tries to interpret everything he hears into some kind of action that can be taken to impress his superiors. He then spends most of the time running around like a headless chicken trying to deliver something impressive. In fact, all this person is doing is wasting time and causing delays, which amounts to increased costs and lower productivity. Senior managers are not usually impressed by increased costs and lower productivity!
If you find yourself setting these artificial deadlines for your team or your client, then you need to evaluate what your true motivations are. If you do not need it until next Wednesday or possibly at all, then do not ask someone to deliver it to you tomorrow. Do you really need that much control over everything and everybody? If you are afraid that by not acting early you may have a last-minute scramble to get something completed, then plan for that possible last-minute request. Tell your team member, "The client is asking for a new specification for feature X. I have investigated what is behind the request and found that they have discussed the change but will not make a final decision until Monday. If they approve this on Monday, they will need the specification by Wednesday. It will be a stretch to get it completed in two days, so you may need to work some overtime to finish it, but I would rather do that than have you work on it now and then find out that it was a waste of time." Your team member will respect you far more for letting her know the real situation than if you ask for everything now "just in case." If you are setting artificial deadlines because you are trying to impress someone at the top of your organization, then you are not focusing on the most important priorities for your project. You need to reevaluate the driving force behind your actions.
Sometimes, the control issue behind the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome is due to the person making the request thinking that nothing else could possibly be more important than having you pander to her every need. In other words, it is due to an inflated sense of self-importance. It could also be due to a sense of insecurity on the part of the requester, who feels that to get anything done, she must present it as an emergency, thereby "threatening" you in some way to carry out the request. This could also be described as a deflated sense of self-importance. Though these two personality types are at opposite ends of the spectrum, their negative behaviors may be very similar. Don't mistake a quiet, personable nature as the sign that someone would never use a tactic like this to control you in some way. This type of personality often uses manipulative tactics for control. The use of hurry-up-and-wait behavior combined with the threat that someone more important is relying on this task being done is a classic example of manipulation. Being able to understand and recognize the warning signs of negative behavior can help you avoid falling victim to the hurry-up-and-waiters quite so often. Avoiding it completely will be almost impossible, but reducing it will help you manage your project more effectively.
So, what can you do? You can ask specific questions when asked for something "immediately." You can ask why it is urgent. You can ask who specifically requested that this be done. You can clearly communicate how dropping everything to work on this task will impact your project. It would be wise to put the request, and its impact,
in writing and copy the person who has been identified as the initiator. Better still, ask the requester to put it in writing. If he gives you an "I am too busy to email this to you; just get it done" excuse, then email him a synopsis of the conversation, including what specifically he asked you to do. You need to cover yourself with documentation because you will be surprised by how often the hurry-up-and-waiters change their story after the fact. They will often deny that they asked you to work on the task or the report at all. They will state that they just told you that it might need doing and blame you for taking it upon yourself to make your entire team work overtime on it. Cover yourself. People who continually cry wolf will hardly ever take responsibility for their actions.
Having said all this, I must point out that real emergencies that need to be dealt with quickly do happen. You need to have a good, solid process in place that allows you to act quickly and effectively in an emergency situation. Flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing priorities are necessary to avoid potential business and project disasters. If you doubt whether an emergency is really an emergency, go to the identified source or someone closer to the identified source and explain what is at risk by this request taking priority over everything else. Enable him to make an informed decision about whether he really wants to drop everything to get this done. Half an hour spent researching a request will be time well-spent. Don't overdo this, though. You cannot be calling the CEO every two days questioning him about every initiative he launches. You do not want to be seen as inflexible or as a complainer or troublemaker. Use your best judgment and follow up in a professional and discreet manner. This is not about getting someone into trouble; it is about keeping your project on schedule and prioritizing requests appropriately.
The hurry-up-and-wait syndrome is frustrating, but equally frustrating is its alter ego, the wait-and-hurry-up disorder! Wait-and-hurry-up situations are the emergencies that are caused by procrastination on the part of someone who is involved in or has an impact on your project. This person should have asked you for this "thing" four weeks ago when the need for it was identified, but he just remembered that it is due tomorrow, so can you please work all night to get it done? Otherwise Mr. X will be really angry, and who knows what will happen?
Procrastinators are masters of the name-dropping technique to get you to work late on something that they forgot to communicate earlier. If you finish it on time, they get all the credit, but if it is late, they will likely find a way to make it someone else's fault, possibly yours. Be careful how you manage these situations. If you are too accommodating, you may end up spending most of your time dealing with other people's last-minute, procrastination-driven emergencies. It is far better to implement a process for requests that is immune to this kind of abuse. If you have clear, written proof of when requests are made, you can make sure that the procrastinator is the one on the spot for the delay--not you or your team!
Again, make sure you are not doing this to your team members. It is easy to focus attention on the things that others do to make your job harder and thus forget to monitor your own behavior. All leaders like to have control; this is why they have a desire to lead. Therefore, it takes a lot of self-discipline to ensure that you are utilizing your leadership skills in a positive manner to effectively manage and lead your team. Stay self-aware, and if you find yourself starting to exhibit negative behaviors, stop and think about what you are doing. Analyze the reasons and emotions behind your behavior, and identify a positive way to achieve the same result. Negative use of control tactics is going to risk the well-being of your team and your project. Negative, controlling behaviors rear their ugly heads more often when you are feeling pressured, stressed, tired, unmotivated, or disempowered. When you have any of these negative feelings or emotions, it is important that you maintain an even tighter control and awareness of your own behavior.
Interestingly, the negative behaviors we have discussed often cause these negative feelings in the recipients of the behaviors. This can then lead to negative behavior on their part, thereby creating a vicious cycle. Remember that if you are a victim of negative control tactics, you could easily start to display the same negativity when dealing with your team members. Likewise, you could perpetuate the negativity by passing it straight on to your team. For example, if you have a hurry-up-and-wait or a wait-and-hurry-up situation, you could panic your team with the same threats and scenarios of disaster that were presented to you to force them to comply with your request without too much push-back. This tactic is designed to coerce your team members into fulfilling your request without argument. In other words, they will "go quietly." You are avoiding taking responsibility for the request by blaming the purported initiator for creating the need. Consequently, you are playing the "poor me" card. The result of all this is that your team feels frustrated, stressed, and so on. Your team will feel disempowered if they think that the project manager does not have control of their destiny. It is important to be aware of this. They feel empowered because you are empowered. For them to feel like they have some control over the project, they need to know that you are making the decisions for the team.
Once again, it is important to note that there are emergencies that really do need to be dealt with quickly. Even if the emergency has been created by procrastination, it may be critical to the success of your project to act quickly. If this is the case, do the right thing to ensure the success of the project. You should follow up later, once the disaster has been averted, with a lessons-learned meeting to make certain that you will not have a repeat performance of this unnecessary "panic" again.
Colleen Garton is the author of the MC Press book Fundamentals of Technology Project Management.