CONVERSATIONS on hitting deadlines and commitments
Jeremy Lizt is a Technical Advisor to Datavant, and former CTO and Co-founder of LiveRamp (NYSE:RAMP). Holly May is Head of People & Operations at Datavant. We converse on topics of company culture and organizational development. Their first post is: https://medium.com/datavant-engineering/conversations-1ba61add1c1a
Holly May: Hi Jeremy, what do you recommend for cultivating and maintaining a sense of urgency across commitments on our team? We want to tolerate mistakes and failure and misses, but still acknowledge them as such. You can learn from mistakes only if you acknowledge them. On a sprint basis and on a quarterly goal-setting basis, it’s important that we develop credibility across teams so that when someone says I will do X by Y date, their commitment is strong enough that others can rely on it. Perhaps there are different categories:
- firm commitments that other people rely on, and
- aspirational targets that are directional but flexible
Jeremy Lizt: Holly, I’m very happy you’ve raised this. I suspect this is a particularly common issue, and the way in which it’s managed can significantly impact (in ways both positive and negative) both team effectiveness and morale.
It’s important for a culture to hold individuals accountable to their commitments, and it’s essential for a company to meet deadlines to earn the trust of its customers.
Why do individuals and teams so often miss deadlines? In my experience, these are some of the most common reasons:
- Diversions/Interruptions. In a world where employees have a range of responsibilities, it’s rare that they get to focus on a task without being pulled in other “urgent” directions.
- Optimistic estimates. There’s typically a lot of responsibility to go around for (often wildly) optimistic estimates of how long a task will take to complete.
- Suboptimal execution. People, particularly people with only a few years of experience, will often miss a healthy balance of elegance and efficiency. A common problem is spending a lot of time getting a project done with “very high quality” when it might have been just as effective to have achieved only “high quality” (and may have taken 50% of the time). This is a huge learning opportunity, and good mentoring is essential. (Some people have the opposite problem, i.e. getting something done really fast, with terrible quality.)
A corollary of #3 is that folks spend time on the wrong tasks. This can happen when there are too many “urgent” demands, or whenever priorities aren’t clear.
Holly May: I think the balance of efficiency and elegance (aka quality) is a key one. I advise new team members to ask themselves — and their teammates — “what does good enough look like?”
Jeremy Lizt: Developing a balance of elegance and efficiency can be the biggest lever a person has to improve their effectiveness. It generally entails evaluating the needs of the current task as well as overcoming their personal biases towards one side of the spectrum or the other. This is a great subject for another discussion.
Getting back to our main topic, when you’ve got a strong team with healthy team spirit, a less common reason deadlines are missed is that people aren’t working hard enough. Unfortunately, a risk of demanding “more urgency” is that it can come across as an accusation of exactly that. If someone is working 80 hour weeks and hears they need to demonstrate more urgency… well, you can imagine how that feels.
My recommendation is to examine why folks are missing deadlines, then ensure there is support from their managers (and from the top) to address the root causes. If you are serious about improving on deadlines, this will almost certainly involve tradeoffs (e.g. fewer ambitious commitments, tolerating/encouraging people to say no to asks that seem important, etc.).
Holly May: Okay, that all makes sense. How can we put this into practice?
Jeremy Lizt: As the company grows, and organizational and technical complexity expand, it becomes increasingly helpful to operate within a framework with regular cadences. A common structure is to set out large-scale goals every quarter, and more targeted, concrete goals on a sprint basis, where a sprint may be one or two weeks.
One of the many benefits of having a regular, structured time period is that you can more easily allocate time to perform a retrospective, a meeting where team members review what went well and not well in the previous period. This is an ideal time to consider missed commitments and identify their causes. I suggest doing this at both the sprint and quarter cadences, and suspect your teams will be surprised at how much useful information is surfaced.
Holly May: Awesome, thanks Jeremy. We’re already doing quarterly roadmaps and weekly sprints tracked in spreadsheets supported by detailed product specs. We have a good cultural value that emphasizes “feedback is a gift” which means we embrace doing post-mortems when things go awry and do retrospectives several times per quarter. We can definitely do them more often, and this is a great reminder to do them often, and in a structured way.