Being a leader often means looking to push your teams to achieve difficult results against tight deadlines, with tough customers or with high levels of complexity.
The challenge is to know the difference between very difficult, the improbable and the really impossible. Often our teams will think of things as impossible when in fact they are more likely just very difficult, or perhaps even improbable, but that doesn’t mean they are not do-able.
Here you must challenge your teams thinking, asking probing questions and trying to get them to think differently in order to find a solution that they can believe in. You need to ask them what they need to succeed, rather than why they think things are not possible.
You need to get them into a can-do mindset, rather than a can’t-do mindset, which can help them with even the most difficult of challenges.
Queen of denial
However, you need to keep your teams grounded in reality, and you need to recognize when you are pushing them to try and achieve the truly impossible because by definition it is not possible. If your teams commit to delivering the impossible, then this will only lead to frustration, disappointment, and de-motivation.
You need to make sure that you create a safe environment where your teams feel comfortable to push back rather than just blindly sticking to a plan they feel they have been forced into.
According to studies, on projects that failed, over 70 percent of the time, the teams involved knew that the project was going to fail from the very start, and often management just ignored their concerns.
You don’t want to be the type of leader that just buries his head in the sand and then just blindly adds to that statistic, as this would make you a what is known as a Cleopatra type of leader, or queen of denial.
That doesn’t mean that you should just accept things when they tell you they think a deadline is not possible, or that a result cannot be achieved.
But you need to be judicious, and understand their limitations, and also to listen to nonverbal cues or concerns that are mentioned that clearly hint that they do not believe in the plan. Not everyone will come out and directly say what they think, but they will give you clues.
Sometimes we, as leaders, can convince ourselves that the impossible is achievable, especially when it’s critically important to us.
But here you need to be extra careful because our desire for a given result to be possible can blind us to the reality that it’s not.
There’s never enough money to do it right, but…
Many years ago I worked on a project in Holland where we were seriously underwater on a contract and in order to stem the losses we needed to achieve a go-live of stage one of the project within a four-month period.
The initial estimate had been 12-months to achieve go live, but we all knew that there was some slack in the plan and that we could squeeze it a little. But as we started the re-planning our boss set the aggressive target of going live in four months and asked us to plan accordingly. Often repeating that the budget was limited and we couldn’t afford for it to take any longer.
So we created a plan which was theoretically feasible, but it required us to execute flawlessly and also required us to have some good luck along the way.
However, relying on luck, just like hoping, is not a reliable strategy for success.
The result was that we failed to meet the deadline. We ended up re-planing the project delivering the stage five months later. Much to the disappointment of everyone involved.
This was a project where I learned the valuable lesson that even though there is not enough money to do it right, there is always money to do it again.
You need to protect your team from over committing themselves, but you also need to ensure that you don’t over commit them too.
You need to listen to their concerns and not just dismiss them, and you need to listen to your own intuition and not just go into denial as that will lead to a potentially expensive failure.
The cheapest and fastest way to achieve any goal is to get it right first time.