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Rational Estimates: Motivate the Team by Acknowledging Reality

It is not Possible to do the Impossible Project

I have written before about estimates, risk and managing expectations.  Most of us know that there is such a thing as a rational estimate and we know that it is one that considers risk and uncertainty, is based on past experience, and on a realistic assessment of the work to be done, the work environment in which it is to be done, the tools and techniques to be used to do it and the quality and availability of resources.

It is common sense that just because people in powerful positions want something to be done in a certain time frame for a certain cost it doesn’t guarantee that it will get done.  Of course, pressure, strong sponsorship, lots of money, super high priorities vis-à-vis other projects and the right resources help to do what seems at times to be impossible; but in the end it is not possible to do the impossible.

Motivation Affects Performance

“Motivation is a fire from within. If someone else tries to light that fire under you, chances are it will burn very briefly.”  Stephen Covey

There is an interesting link between motivation and performance.  Motivation stimulates the desire, energy and intensity to perform.  It is what moves people to exert persistent effort to achieve goals.  “Motivation is the energizer of behavior and mother of all action. It results from the interactions among conscious and unconscious factors such as

  1. Intensity of desire or need
  2. Incentive or reward value of the goal
  3. Expectations of the individual and of his or her significant others.”[i]

Motivation can be from within and/or from external sources.  Internal motivation stems from intrinsic desires.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs refers to six intrinsic motivators – the needs for physiological safety, security, social contact, for recognition, self-actualization and self-transcendence.  External motivators are rewards from an external source, for example recognition, money, the promise of perpetual security, a promotion, etc.

It is the interplay between internal and external motivation that has behavioral impact.

The Link Between Realistic Acknowledgement and Motivation

You might be wondering “So, what does this have to do with rational estimating?”

Imagine being on a project in which you know that no matter how hard you work you will not be able to succeed in achieving the project goals or hit your own target dates.  Imagine too that you are being driven on by managers and sponsors who insist that the target date must be met within cost constraints.  Add to that the situation that there have been many past projects in which you and others have been faced with unrealistic estimates and a management attitude that seems right out of Dilbert (that is to say completely without reason).  How do you react?  How motivated are you to push yourself, to work unpaid overtime.

On the other hand, imagine a similar situation with tight target dates and cost constraints based on an unrealistic estimate and a manager or sponsor who owns up to the reality and says something like, “I know we are unlikely to succeed in meeting the estimates, but due to political and customer relations issues that are out of my control we can’t change them now.  We need to work as hard as we can to bring the project in as soon as possible and with the lowest cost overrun.” 

How would that make you feel?  Would you be more or less motivated to push?

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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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