Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!

Have you ever heard of “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”? At one point in my career I got involved with a great group of people on a number of projects. While the projects were exciting and challenging, we recognized they had many potential obstacles that made achieving our goals of highly desired features, functionality, and timely delivery optimistic, to say the least.  People would ask us whether we felt we would be able to reach our aggressive goals, and our response would often be, “Sure, when pigs fly!”  But we didn’t really mean that. We felt, cockily, that we could achieve our goals despite the obstacles. In fact, to “prove” it (or, more accurately, to further demonstrate our cockiness) we even adopted a mascot for our department, the aforementioned “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”. One member of our group (actually the wife of one of the members of our group) found a large stuffed pig and sewed large fluffy wings on it, and it was hung from the drop ceiling in my office (I was the department head at the time) to illustrate that we could make pigs fly! Cocky indeed! With hard work and high spirits we attempted to do everything we believed we could to achieve the stretch goals we had set for ourselves, and we succeeded more often than not. This was an approach and outlook that I have tried to foster throughout my career, and I recommend it highly, with caveats to be described below. It can make work fun, challenging, demanding, and exciting, and encourage people to eagerly look forward to going to work and doing great things.

So what does it take to build an environment where people love what they’re doing and achieve great things? How can you foster such an environment?

First, let’s talk about what won’t work.
  • Projects that are simple to achieve and actually hard to mess up won’t do it. Where’s the challenge in doing something easy? Anyone can do that!  
  • Projects that are impossible to achieve and that will with high certainty fail won’t do it either (see Unrealistic Expectations and Sunny Day Scenarios). If you know you have no chance of success, you may go through some of the motions, but your heart won’t be in it and you and all of your team members will do what you’re told as part of a “death march”. The best people will be the first to leave and others will soon follow. The project will fail.
  • Projects that are being micromanaged from above with constant intervention and daily (or even hourly) reporting and constant nitpicking won’t do it either. Who wants to live under a microscope with others looking for the most minute issues or infractions? People want to fly, not to be held down!
  • Projects that receive virtually no management or interest from those in charge won’t do it either. If no one shows any interest that they want a project to succeed, it probably won’t, despite the concerted efforts of the people involved. People want their work to matter, and can’t get excited if it doesn’t!

You can describe other circumstances you’ve seen that won’t work. There are many situations that won’t enable the right kind of environment, but what will?

Let’s talk about some of the elements that must be present, and how they can come together to create the magic that can make pigs fly.
  • There must be good people who like each other and who can work well together. Perfect harmony isn’t essential, but mutual respect is. In fact, some cognitive dissonance (e.g. heated “discussions”) helps to ensure truly informed judgments are being made and can prevent “group think” that could lead to bad decision making. The team should also bring together all of the disciplines and levels of expertise necessary to be thorough and complete in concept, design, and execution (see Do Jobs Right – Assign the Right People!). There should be plentiful opportunities for the team to work together interactively and cooperatively such that the results of the collaborative efforts are far more that the sums of the individual efforts. Synergy such as this makes working together genuinely compelling and rewarding.
  • Active oversight by managers (be they group managers, technical managers, project managers, etc.) who are truly part of the team is also critical. These must be people who fully believe in the people and the project and who are there to help the people and the project succeed (see Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers, and Herding Cats 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6).  They can do this by getting problems out of the team’s way so the team can move forward with minimal interruption and disruption (see Move the Rocks and People Travel Faster). Poor management (even one person) can kill the magic and doom a project all too easily (see Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well,  Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old YellerMis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder and Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole; see also Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!).
  • The project must be a compelling one that the team must care about, and that the market demands. The project goals must be aggressive but achievable. A project that is a piece of cake or one that is clearly impossible won’t cut it, but one that is difficult yet compelling will.  Stretch goals can be motivating and desirable. People want the opportunity to reach for greatness, to excel, and to achieve against the odds (but they don’t want to be duped into accepting impossible odds). Slaying the dragon is good. Tilting against windmills is not.
  • There should be recognition of the hard work, effort, and success that people on the team are doing and have achieved (see You Reap What You Sow!). Such recognition and praise should be public, for individuals and some or all of the team. This need not be monetary (although that can also be good!); often a hearty pat on the back or public praise in front of a larger audience can go a long way. Lunches for reaching critical milestones can also show recognition and provide another opportunity for team building. Public praise is essential, but any criticism of an individual or group should be done in private and should offer concrete ways to address and correct the causes for criticism.  You want to build people up and not tear them down. When pigs are flying there is generally plenty of praise to go around.

When the elements come together in the right way, the result is nothing short of exhilarating! The work is fun, it’s hard, it’s exhausting, it’s exciting, it’s demanding, it’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s … well, you name it! When it’s not right you quickly know it, but when it is, revel in the situation, build upon it, and enjoy it while it lasts. Encourage it and foster it. Go out and buy your own stuffed pig and sew fluffy wings on it and call it “Pigasus the famous flying pig!”, and hang it in the right place for all to see. You and your team have found the ways to make Pigasus fly when all around you naysayer’s try to tell you that’s impossible! It’s not and you’ve proved it!

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