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How to Motivate the Team on a Troubled Project

Pitagorsky_blog_nov17_croppedWhen a project begins there is the hope, even assumption, that it will be completed successfully.  The project team is often motivated and optimistic.  But what happens when the project gets mired in technical problems or caught up in politics, loses resources and slows to a snail’s pace.  What happens when the project becomes troubled in all the many ways that happens?

One thing that happens is that the team loses the motivation to press on.  Morale falls and performance degrades.  This is exacerbated by the tendency many managers have to crack the whip and put on more pressure, often without addressing the real causes of the trouble. 

How do we motivate the team and ourselves when we are working on a troubled, failing project?  How do we get the team inspired to get through the situation and succeed?

Avoid Reactive Behavior

A number of methods come to mind.  There is the tried and true technique of finding a scapegoat to blame and gang up on.  There is the advice of the project manager in the famous three envelopes story who leaves his successor on a troubled project three envelopes to be opened when the going gets rough.  The first advises the new PM to blame his predecessor.  The second advises project reorganization and the third advises that the PM, now in an even deeper hole than the one he started with, make three envelopes.

Clearly these are jokes.  Yet, how often do we find these very techniques applied in the face of a project that is behind schedule, over budget and riddled with unproductive conflict?

Take a Step Back

Well then, what do we do? 

Avoid reactive behavior and exhortation. 

Take a step back – get perspective on the project and its environment.  Review the current state and how it came into being.  It’s obvious, but counter intuitive to many.  The wrong thinking goes like this “We are way behind schedule; we don’t have time to sit around and review things.  We’ve got to get things done fast.” Remember that everything, including troubled projects have causes and that knowing the causes helps to eliminate their effects.  If you are to turn things around take a strong stance and review.  Do it carefully to avoid blaming but to also home in on the real causes.

Your review will probably find the need for some re-planning, or perhaps the problem is that there was no planning in the first place.  Either way, plan from where you are and get a realistic sense of what the possibilities are.  Can you meet the original expectations?  Is it time to pull the plug on the project and cut your losses?  What is the path forward, the risks and the requirements for success?

Not only will this enable you to determine the right next steps, it will enliven the team.  The team members begin to get the sense that positive change is beginning.  They know that continuing in the same way they have been working; only doing it faster is likely to lead to a horrible ending with more suffering on the way.

Change the Challenge

Change the challenge from getting the project done within the original time and budget to turning the project into a success and learning from the experience. Remember that sometimes a canceled project is better than one that continues on with no hope of success.

Use transparency in a non-blaming way to dig out the real causes of the current situation and honestly appraise the likelihood of being successful under a new set of expectations.  Then act on an informed decision.  Team morale rises as realistic objectives are set and unrealistic ones acknowledged.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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