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Sticking your head in the lion's mouth

This evening the company MD gave a speech about the targets for this year. This included some project deliverables that everybody who had worked on them knew were physically impossible.

This isn't a light decision - we have a reasonably good plan from some extensive research and evaluation and we know exactly how long it will take. Anybody expecting the earlier deadline will be disappointed.

Anyway, at the end of the presentation I said that I would love to deliver the projects when they wanted them, but unfortunately it just couldn't be done, although we could get them delivered at a later date, and we have some contingency plans. I apologised for being downbeat but said I'd rather say this now than having things totally screwed up by unrealistic expectations.

It seems to have struck a nerve with everyone and several people thanked me for at least being honest about it.

Basically, did I handle it the right way, or what would you have recommended doing instead?

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

You know that axiom "under promise and over deliver" well it seems the opposite is true in a beaurocratic environment.

When you're management, your job is to do the impossible.

Look at it this way, if this were a job interview, would you have said it was impossible?

www.MarkTAW.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

> When you're management, your job is to do the impossible.

I mean.. your boss and your boss's boss's job is to get you to do what they need, and if you don't someone else will.

Beauracracy is a dirty word, especially here on JoS, but the fact remains, it exists. If and when the project does fail to meet it's objectives in the alloted time, who do you think the scapegoat will be?

www.MarkTAW.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

You may as well get your resume in order right now. Managers who insist on impossible dealines also have a tendancy to shoot the messenger who delivers bad news. In executive-speak you have taken ownership of any and all delays in the project. It won't fail because the plan was bad, it will fail because you cursed it with your negative attitude.

old_timer
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

old timer,

I couldn't have said it better. 

Sad that, really

Name withheld out of cowardice
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

"Managers who insist on impossible dealines also have a tendancy to shoot the messenger who delivers bad news."

Really? I haven't found that at all...

Philo

Philo
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Yeah, i'm going to agree with philo.  I know managers at my company ask for impossible deadlines all the time.  They insist on it too.  And we the development team always argue and push back.  Its kind of like the american legal system.  They argue for their side as much as possible, and we argue for our side.  Then, we just get as much done as we can.  I don't know if its the best system, but I wouldn't be suprised if its common for managers to ask the impossible, just hoping that the development team will put in a "little extra", trying to make the deadline. 

vince
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

As Vince said, it's not uncommon for management to challenge the staff to exceed. And it's perfectly reasonable to express your concern that some milestones are unlikely to be met. I would question your bringing it up at a meeting the way you did though; that risks embarassing the boss in front of everyone. Normally you would bring your concerns to your own manager; going over his head or confronting higher level management is asking for backlash. 

Tom H
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I would highly recommend reading as much of McConnell's Rapid Development between now and having your next interaction with that manager. 

A big gist of the whole book is how to guard against being assigned stupid deadlines that can't be reached, what impact they have (they slow you down even more than just doing it how you would), what sort of solutions will enable all parties to not lose face, and how to implement such solutions.

Konrad
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Better,

Don't listen to these cats. You did the right thing. If upper management is being solld a bill of goods, that threatens the company's ability to succeed because they can't plan correctly which can lead to squandered millions all because no one wanted to state the emperor was naked.

What executive management needs is realistic information - not fairy tales.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Philo,

There's a difference between telling your boss that his deadline is unreasonable and announcing that the person who just made the presentation was wrong and the company's whole business proposition for the next 6 months has to be rethought.

The generals might get upset if the grunts start questioning their orders.

www.MarkTAW.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Man you guys have short memories. I was being sarcastic.

Philo

Philo
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

D!oh. I forgot that you spell Sarcastic "C A M E L"

www.MarkTAW.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

As a ground floor developer, I'd say you are right to push back and should do it as much as possible.  One of my first projects with my company was one under management that wasn't willing to push back against a highly unrealistic schedule.  (Even termed by management as a 10% schedule, meaning they conceded there was a 10% chance of making the date.)

This meant that we, the developers, ended up working months of 60-80 hour weeks trying to make the schedule, and of course still failed.

The result was that every manager four levels above me has been replaced since the failure and all of the developers who gave their time to the project with no reward have spent over a year in an extremely demoralized state.  Productivity levels have been almost nil.

Not pushing back against unrealistic schedules is immensely more costly than taking a little bit of time at the start to get an accurate plan.

Motivation Zero
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

So instead of every manager 4 levels above you, you'd rather they replace you?

If you have a problem with your schedule, take it up with your manager, don't air his dirty laundry to his superiors.

www.MarkTAW.com
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

BTBU wrote, "Basically, did I handle it the right way, or what would you have recommended doing instead?"

Impossible to say since I wasn't there. That said, very few people would have done what you say you did.

If I was in your shoes and I was stressed out enough I might have done something similar. My approach MIGHT have been to setup a private meeting with my bosses boss and provide him with alternatives such as we can probably deliver the projects that need to be done when you want them if we do such and such or cut this and that....

While Yourdan has written two versions of his book titled "Death March", the reason why companies continue to spawn Death March projects typically boils down to the people in power making project decisions they simply aren't qualified to make and then not being held accountable for those bad decisions.

I salute you sir for having the balls to do what you did.

One Programmer's Opinion
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

My wife was in management at a hospital that was converting to Electronic Medical Records.

She pointed out some serious "issues", but was ignored because she wasn't showing a "can do attitude".

She was very tempted to say "ok, so you're ignoring the input of the ONE manager in this room who :
a.  Actually uses the E.M.R (as a practicing clinician)
and
b. OWNS a SOFTWARE COMPANY!!!

Needless to say, she doesn't work there anymore. She works in our software company, where the boss always listens to her valuable advice.

The real Entrepreneur
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Humorous story of telling management the truth:

The hospital where my wife worked had a big meeting for managers.

They announced that there would be a budget shortfall, so everyone need to cut back expenses.

Someone asked:
"Who negotiated the rates in our contracts" ?
response: top management

"Who decided our budget this year?"
response: top management

"At what point did you realize that the rates were BELOW our costs" ?
response: dead silence.

Amazingly, she still works there.

The real Entrepreneur
Tuesday, January 13, 2004

huh?

Needless to say, she doesn't work there anymore. She works in our software company, where the boss always listens to her valuable advice.
...
The hospital where my wife worked had a big meeting for managers.
...
Amazingly, she still works there.

j b
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

'someone' presumably != 'my wife'. same hospital.

sounds like hospital stories from my friends:
we need people to work the new, later, shift!

(managers all arrive at 10 and go home at 3)

mb
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Usually when a deadline looks almost doable, it still isn't.  Given that the research, planning and negotiating had already been done, it is quite certain that the early deadline is impossible.

If failure of the project would have serious enough consequences that job loss would happen anyway, it makes sense to put yourself on the line and speak up like that.  It's probably the only way that anyone with power would actually start to pay attention to the reality of the situation.  Saying it to your immediate manager would go nowhere, because he/she won't mention it to the higher-ups.

T. Norman
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Philo, you spent months telling the client that camel would never be ready on time and then they, err, killed the messenger.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Thanks for the comments. Some more info.

It's a small company. There is only one level of management between myself and the top guy and he's on holiday for a couple of weeks.

I'm ultimately responsible for all the technical stuff in the project and making sure the schedule is accurate, so if we say it's going to be done on x and it's done on y I have to take the flak for it anyway.

I have already previously held a meeting with the top guy to discuss these issues. Actually, we both have a good working relationship.

"Rapid Development" is one of my favourite books.

Better Than Being Unemployed...
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

"It seems to have struck a nerve with everyone and several people thanked me for at least being honest about it."

What was the MD's reaction? Personally I would thank the guy that argued successfully against my numbers if they are really off base (not if they are just arguing a few %'s). However, I have known people (eventually) fired for being "smarter than their manager" as well. Also quite a few places don't like the rank and file to know the real numbers. A little pressure works great (hey, I said a little).

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

In reply to the original question, I believe you did the right thing as a professional.

I use the word "professional" purposefully, because I believe that being a professional means giving your employer (or client) the full benefit of knowledge and experience not available to the layman, and being honest.

Being a professional can be unpopular and detrimental in the short term, but can greatly increases your project's chance for success. The more successful projects you are a part of, the more respect you will gain in the industry. More respect leads to more money and power, or more freedom to choose interesting projects.

Being a professional also means being considerate and having tact. If you lack those things then your attempts at professionalism can be unnecessarily alienating (even if you have those things it can be alienating, but sometimes that's necessary). Of course, in the short run it can lead to reprimands from PHBs or even unemployment.

DKatz
Wednesday, January 14, 2004

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