How often do you see similar situations occurring in the workplace? A person with no concept of what’s involved comes in and demands that a complex job be done within an impossible timeframe. That person then leaves the room, and subsequently yells and screams when things don’t happen as he/she imagines them. When you try to inject some reality into the situation, to explain the technical difficulties with his/her demands, or the time it will actually take to accomplish what is requested, this person does not want to hear it. The demand has been set, and it is your task to “Make it so!” It’s easy for them to say, but often darn near impossible for mere mortals who actually have to do the work. This has always been a pet peeve.
Such an imperious approach can actually be good if the stated intent is to set a new direction with stretch goals, and the timeframes are even somewhat reasonable. For example, John F. Kennedy set a goal in 1961 of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of that decade. This was certainly a stretch goal, but one which had a chance of reality and one which motivated people to excel and accomplish a difficult but achievable goal. If he had said this was to go to Mars and back, or to be done by 1962, it would have been recognized as totally impossible, and would have been de-motivating rather than motivating. The difference is in the intent and in the attainability of the goals.
In most situations, however, the intent is not to set a new direction with stretch goals. It is to develop and deliver a new product needed to generate revenues for the company. This is a perfectly valid intent. A goal is stated for some key features and the desired release date. Most rational people will recognize that the logical next step is to examine what has been asked for, and to start to define the requirements, timeframes, and resources available in more detail to determine whether what has been requested is feasible. The irrational next step is to simply pronounce, “Make it so!”
When rationality prevails, and the people involved recognize the realities involved, an aggressive yet attainable project can be defined to develop and deliver the needed product (see Failing to Plan Means You Are Planning to Fail!). Meaningful product requirements can be defined that delineate a substantial product that meets corporate goals (see Development Methodology: Requirements). A strong team can be assembled that will buy in to the development goals and the timeframes desired (see Do Jobs Right – Assign the Right People!). It can be nothing short of astounding to see what such a committed team can do when given aggressive yet rational goals (see Pigasus: When Pigs Fly!).
When irrationality prevails, an unfeasible product with ridiculous time frames is usually defined, and a team is commanded to work on the project (with little, if any, choice). The team will recognize the impossibility of success, and the project will be destined for failure. The team will go through the motions, knowing all the while that it will not succeed. Their hearts and souls will simply not be in it. Often someone will attempt to push the project ahead, but it is generally only a matter of time before that person also recognizes the senselessness of his/her position and the futility of the overall project. The finger-pointing will be continuous and damaging. It is likely that the best people involved will look for a transfer or for a new job. [See Unrealistic Expectations, and If You Want It Bad, You’ll Get It … Bad!]
So, what do you do when you see that irrationality is likely to prevail?
First, do not accept the inevitability of irrationality. It is up to every person involved to stand up to this and defend a rational point of view. Make sure the irrational proponent understands that an impossible goal will lead to project failure, a prospect that none involved want to happen, and that laws of physics cannot be overturned simply because this proponent would like to do so.
Ask the irrational proponent how he/she believes impossible requirements can be met, or how unattainable timeframes can be reached, or how unavailable resources can be applied. Let him/her know that a command of “Make it so!” just doesn’t cut it. Explain the realities – slowly, calmly, logically, and repeatedly (see Pound The Facts, Not The Table). Ask the irrational proponent to address each of these realities with alternative solutions or approaches. Explain the alternative as you see them.
If the irrational proponent presents some good alternatives, embrace them, rethink the impact, and continue with the discussion, taking each point one at a time, and walking through all of the issues. If the proponent can convince the people involved that he/she does have a way to achieve the goals, then you have all reached an agreement and buy-in, which is, after all, what you really want in order to succeed. If this proponent cannot, then help make it clear what the implications are, and what the options are: to trim back on features, add time to the schedule, add to or modify the resources to be applied, or whatever else can be done.
If you can’t get to the point where a rational discussion can even begin, then agree to disagree, and raise the issue to someone higher in the management chain who is more open to reason. You may ultimately paint yourself into a corner where you are viewed as the one who is being irrational. But are you really worse off then than by accepting a project you see as doomed to fail?
Remember, you and your team are the people who will be tasked with carrying out the project, not the irrational proponent. You are the ones who will put your blood, sweat, and tears into making it happen. If it fails, you and your team will be the people held responsible. The irrational proponent can then insist that it’s entirely your fault, and that none of the blame should fall on him/her, because if you could have simply done as he/she said, the project would have been a great success that would have generated untold amounts of revenue for the company; what’s wrong with you!
No job is hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it! Don’t allow yourself to be forced into an irrational situation.