I was delighted with the results of the weekend testing. Finally, we had broken through some major issues that had been holding us back for many weeks. I couldn’t wait to see the team on Monday morning.
“That’s fantastic! I’m so glad that these issues are finally resolved. It’s been a long journey – thank you to you and all the team who have worked so hard on this.”
The project team member was flat. He did not seem to share my elation.
I asked him what was wrong.
He said to me, “Pam, look it’s good that we’ve got through this and I am relieved. But here’s the reality. Sure, we’ve finally knocked down this massive brick wall. But I still don’t feel like celebrating.”
“Why not?” I asked. I know how important celebrating milestones is for teams, even more so when the work is challenging, and the gains achieved are hard won. I was bemused.
“Do you know what is behind every brick wall we’ve knocked down on this project?”, he asked.
“No? Tell me,” I said, knowing I wasn’t going to like the answer.
“Another brick wall.”
“And we have no idea whether there’s 1, 3 or 300 brick walls remaining.”
Many large, complicated programs go through challenges like this. This was not a unique situation.
But you do need to know what your brick wall tolerance level is. If you don’t, you risk continuing at any cost, and it becomes a war of attrition. With the quality of the end product potentially compromised.
With every new brick wall encountered, less and less of the rubble is cleared away. By the time you get to the end – assuming you even get there – the path is a mess. And the compromises are visible in every aspect of the final delivery.
Here are four things I’ve learned as the sponsor of large, complicated, programs that have kept me awake at night:
It is essential for project sponsors to connect directly with the people in the team doing the work. Of course you need to be closely connected with the program director and key leaders. But when you connect with the people at the heart of the project, you are much more likely to get an unfiltered view on how things really are.
2: Brick Wall Tolerance
Are you a 1 or a 10? Higher? How many brick walls are you prepared to break down on the journey to delivery? What will be the trade offs? Each time the tired, frustrated team break down an additional wall, are they getting rid of all the rubble remaining? Is it possible you could reach the final wall, and there is so much mess left around you that the end product is unusable?
3: Back the team
If the team thinks delivery is achievable then get behind them. Give them air cover, plenty of access to you, and anything else needed to solve problems and get things done.
4: Be prepared to make the hard calls
You need to be aware of what’s going on day to day, but high enough above the fray to have a perspective on whether continuing is the right call. Beware the sunk cost fallacy. Just because you’ve smashed through 10 brick walls doesn’t mean you should keep going. It might mean that, but it might not too. As a minimum you need a robust conversation about the pitfalls of continuing, and the compromises you are prepared to make. I wrote about being brave enough to open this conversation in an earlier newsletter: The Courage to Stare into the Abyss.
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*With apologies to Pink Floyd for twisting the name and lyrics of their iconic song, Another Brick in the Wall.