For one reason or another, team members don't feel safe reporting bad news that marks the delay of a project. No one wants to take responsibility for the set back, so the blame is passed down the production line. At this point, the blame game is in full swing. In this week's column, Peter Clark refers to this game as Schedule Chicken. His commentaries on the game's development reveal strategies that perpetuate delays. And this game only has losers: the project and the customer.
"Good evening, and welcome to 'Celebrity Schedule Showdown!' I'm your host, Bob Unctuous. Tonight, we have a battle of titans, as experienced team members play Schedule Chicken, the game of passing the blame for an impending project disaster. The project on the table is the new accounts receivable system, and failure means the company won't get paid! Heads will roll for this one, so you can expect the battle to be particularly fierce."
First, let's review our rules. All players start with a portion of the project that has a hidden schedule deficit. Players ask each other questions to uncover how far other parts of the project are behind. The player with the largest schedule deficit is eliminated. As always, the project and the customer will lose.
The project manager starts the game by asking everyone for a status report. All of the players easily dodge this question by saying they are on schedule. Now, it's on to the roundtable.
Bob the DBM asks Sue from network services when the share for the new database partition will be installed. Sue passes the question over to Sid from security, asking if the security plan has been approved. Sid can't make eye contact, and says that he expects to work on it tomorrow. Ouch, that's gotta hurt!
The other players smell blood in the water now. Tom from quality asks Sid when will the VPN firewall ports open so he can start testing customer traffic. Sid is really on the ropes now. He mumbles something about a missing patch from a vendor. The project manager rules Sid's excuse is out-of-bounds--Sid forgot he chose the vendor! Sid receives a two week schedule-slide penalty.
Tina from software development asks Mary from accounting if she has approved the latest revision to the functional specification. Tina says she can't start designing the project until the specifications receive fourteen approval signatures. That's a gutsy move on Tina's part; if anyone realizes that only two paragraphs changed in the reports section, she'll be fined the three-month slide.
Mary has dropped the ball! She just told Tina that the director for accounting standards is on vacation in Hawaii and won't be back for another week! Tina dodges the three-month slide and picks up a one-week bonus!
Delay of Game
Games like this happen every day in almost every project. Team members don't feel safe discussing problems they face on a project and are afraid to report bad news. They are reluctant to bring bad information to the table. This reluctance can blossom into full-blown paranoia in dysfunctional corporate cultures that have a taste for shooting the messenger. The problem can intensify in mixed vendor scenarios when each vendor tries to blame the other for delays.
The problem with Schedule Chicken is that it only delays the inevitable and prevents the project team from taking corrective action early enough to mitigate the impact of the schedule slide. Furthermore, other members of the team might be frantically trying to meet a deadline that is now impossible to achieve. We've all experienced working overtime to meet a deadline that moves at the last moment. This drives up the project cost and kills morale.
Reviewing the Play
Detecting Schedule Chicken can be tricky. One clear sign that the game is afoot is when one team member announces a schedule slide in response to another schedule slide, even if the two deliverables have no clear dependency relationship. For example, if the user interface team says that it will use a delay by accounting to "polish" the product, it could mean there are hidden quality issues the user interface team is afraid to report.
In a politically charged environment, just asking if a deliverable is "on schedule" is insufficient. Require team members to show progress on concrete intermediate deliverables. Be particularly sensitive to meaningless percentage-complete numbers such as "we're 95 percent done with the user interface." Instead, require team members to report progress and setbacks in full detail. For example, "All twelve of the new screens have been coded and eight have been through the first round of QA. We have uncovered six issues with the new screens: four cosmetic, one medium, and one show-stopper."
When collecting status from your people, it is important to keep them feeling as safe as possible. Treat schedule and budget issues as problems teams solve jointly, rather than blaming issues on the personal failings of the one member reporting the issue.
You need people to bring you the unvarnished truth, no matter how bad it is. In a dysfunctional environment, this means that you will have to take the heat for them. If you are unable to report the truth upward in your own organization, it is time to look for a new job.