Why aren’t my employees getting more done?

Ever feel like your employees just aren’t getting enough done fast enough? For most employees, their jobs often feel like pushing a rock uphill. Whether they are responsible to finish a project, maintain a certain standard of service, or sell a certain number of widgets every day, their job is to push some rock uphill towards the pot of gold at the top of the mountain. As a manager, your job is to run from mountain to mountain, providing extra pushes at just the right moment, generating momentum which makes their jobs easier so they reach their pot of gold more consistently.


Fernanda (Photo credit: Omar Moreno Jiménez)

If the rocks aren’t moving quickly enough, there’s likely one of these three problems. Diagnosing the core issue is your first step.

  1. They’ve lost focus on the goal. Do they constantly seem to be working on issues that you think are less important? Are they pushing the rock in a different direction than you need, making a lot of progress on the less important pieces of the rock?
  2. They’ve run into an obstacle. Do you constantly hear “I can’t”, “I’m waiting on…”, “I don’t understand”? Does it seem like they’re working really hard but not getting anywhere?
  3. They don’t share your sense of urgency. Do they always make a little progress but don’t seem to be pushing as hard as you expect? Have you seen them do similar things before, so you know they can do it?
Once you determine the most likely reason, identify what extra push you can provide to get that rock moving again. (more…)

Getting Projects Done – Part 4 – Follow Through

You’ve done your job well by keeping the team engaged and the people above you well informed and engaged, you’ve now delivered a project. Congratulations.

Wait a minute though! Don’t leave just yet. There’s one more critical thing to accomplish. Unfortunately, regardless of whether you do this part well or poorly, it’s very possible that no one will notice. You now have to figure out if your project worked.

The larger the project, the more likely that no one will follow through to determine if the expected results happened. After so much effort, why don’t people want to look for the results?

  1. Sometimes the sponsor just forgets. It was a long project and most people are tired of even thinking about it. If no one is asking, it can be tough to force yourself to dig through the data to find out what really happened.
  2. No one thought about how they would collect the data so it doesn’t exist or the project changed the data source. Consider a project to “reduce phone calls by 10% by implementing this new web functionality”. Somewhere during the project, the customer service manager realizes the web functionality is better than their current system. They give access to the new functionality to the phone team. Incoming phone calls stay flat even though the web functionality is seeing tremendous use. The sponsor recognizes what’s happening but no one thought to build in an easy way to see who was using the page, an employee or a customer. With no reliable data, the frustrated sponsor hopes no one will ask.
  3. Even for the disciplined sponsor, data conflicts can be overwhelming. For example, your project’s goal was to increase customers by 10%. If the data shows a 50% increase, sponsors will quickly report back – results are better than expected! What happens if customers increased by 2%? Most times, the sponsor digs harder to find a better result. Maybe evaluating a different time frame or a certain subset of customers will “fix” the number. Wasn’t there that other project that finished around the same time, the one to increase our prices? How can we back out that impact? Weeks go by and the sponsor fears losing credibility if they admit that their project didn’t have the impact they expected. More analysis and more time passes. Soon, the sponsor recognizes that everyone else has moved on and no one is asking. They start telling themselves that they’ll get back to this later and the post-analysis stops.

Why should you bother to evaluate the success of the project if no one is asking and it’s hard?

  • To fix the original problem. Originally, you were trying to improve the business. If the project didn’t fix the problem, your business still has an opportunity to improve. And now, you have a whole team of people that were just thinking about that problem for weeks or months. Tell them there’s still a problem and they’re likely to come up with a better answer.
  • Loyalty. Most people don’t get to hear the real business outcome of the projects they spend most of their time finishing. Show them how their hard work paid off and they will want to be on your team next time too. People like to work for people who keep them informed and involved.
  • Learning. I promise, make the mistake of not planning and protecting your data source just once, and you will never do that again. Every failure is a huge learning opportunity but you have to be willing to find and admit to the failure to learn how to do it better next time.

Your team worked hard to finish this project for you. Now you owe it to them to tell them the results – good or bad. Finish well and your next project will be even more successful. Or don’t and hope that your boss really isn’t paying attention.

Getting projects done – Part 3 – What’s your mantra

Now that you’ve turned over the project to the Project Manager and team, your role shifts from creator to wagon master. You now have three major responsibilities: lead, constrain, and protect.


Carry the flag – Remember this scene in The Patriot? The line is faltering, the British are advancing. Mel Gibson evaluates the situation, grabs the flag from the failing bearer and charges forward, turning the tide of the battle. That’s your job now. No one should be more passionate about the reason for this project than you. Make sure you have a passionate and clear elevator speech, a mantra, something you repeat so often that you are tired of hearing yourself. Until you are thoroughly bored with yourself, no one else has even heard you.


Keep all the wagons on the same path – The longer the project, the more likely someone will decide that “we might as well do this too while we’re in this code”. You don’t need to speak the same language as programmers or project managers to hear some specific warning signs. If you don’t understand all the acronyms, ask for an English translation. If you don’t want to distract a meeting, ask the project manager offline for a deeper explanation. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s very likely it doesn’t make sense to do. Other phrases to watch out for:

  • “This would be easier if we fixed the way xyz worked” – usually said by a programmer who hates how something semi-related works and is looking for an opportunity to fix a pet peeve. They may be right, but ask a lot of questions and listen for reasonableness.
  • “Didn’t we do something like this already” – it’s great to look for similar projects and learn from them. But many times, this simply leads to your team having to clean up an unfinished or poorly executed project from the past. Let them go there but set dates for research and reporting back.
  • Words like “just”, “too”, “also”, “why not” – while usually a positive sign of creativity, in a project these words can move your dates significantly. Anything that sounds like an addition is possible scope creep, especially when said late in the project’s lifecycle.


Look out for problems and head them off – 

The wagon master will ride in advance…to set the gait and to look out for bad or dangerous places effecting the necessary repairs to roads or bridges should it be dangerous. (Manual for the Quartermaster Corps, United States Army, 1916)

For you, these problems usually are a lack of resources or a change in something coming down from upper management. You have to protect the team and make sure they have the time and freedom to do their jobs. You should constantly scan the environment for potential distractions and remove them before they impact the team. The killer phrases here are typically more blatant than the ones coming from the team:

  • “Doesn’t Project XYZ already do that?” – most often said by a business person who wants you to add their newest idea to your project without adding time or resource.
  • “What if we slid this in front of Project XYZ” – usually includes phrases like “shift resources” or “change timelines”.

Real-life example

If your mantra is strong enough, the team will manage the scope for you.

In my job, our customers must make regular payments, sort of a subscription-based service. We wanted to leverage mobile to increase payments made. We couldn’t afford a full app and resources were non-existent. Someone suggested just making the existing payment page mobile-friendly. Then we could test whether it was valuable to our customers before using too much resource. I agreed and found a way to pay for the smaller initiative. The mantra, repeated in every status meeting, was simple – I want our existing page to be mobile-friendly in the shortest time possible with minimal resources, no longer than two months.

I missed the demo meeting so the team recorded it for me. The demo was amazing. The programmer designed almost a full app, with amazing functionality that I now desperately wanted. The project manager asked, “how long would it take to make all of this functional”. The answer was several months plus testing, where resources were even tighter. The PM ended a long pause with “she won’t agree to that. We need this quickly and with minimal resources and the biggest impact is the payments. How much faster can we do this if we pull it back to just the payments”. I was actually disappointed and overjoyed at the same time. I wanted the extra functionality, but the manager’s words were just the same words I’d been preaching at the beginning and end of every status meeting. Perfect scope control.

Mantras work. Get one.

Getting projects done – Part 2 – Engage the Team

So, you’ve decided to hold yourself as a sponsor accountable for the results of your project. Congratulations! Now, what can you do to build and engage the right team to get it done for you?

Prepare to communicate – slow down and get your point across

  1. You’ve been working on this idea or problem for weeks, maybe months. You are anxious to move on to the next idea. But the team is probably hearing this for the first time. You need to back up and explain from the beginning. Then give them some soak-time so they can get to the same mental place you are.
  2. You think you know what needs to be done. You don’t. You changed your mind twenty times as you were developing your solution. Right now, what you really want is clouded by all the other alternatives you considered. Spend the time to clearly document your final solution.

Who do you need to communicate to?

Think about people that can help you finish the project and people that will be impacted by the outcome. Involving those customers early will help greatly when it comes time to roll out the solution. Make sure every person on the team knows what each person’s roles and responsibilities are for this project. Who has the final say about what when there’s a disagreement or conflict? Who has the authority to shift priorities of other projects to get this one done.

What are you communicating?

    • What – What’s the problem you are solving and what solution did you select? Why is that solution the most attractive and what other options were rejected? The team needs to understand what’s most important about your particular solution so they can make decisions and improvements that complement your solution.
    • Why – What will success look like. Make it the most direct metric available. Don’t just say “improve sales”. Are you trying to increase traffic to any page on the website, the number of times someone clicks the buy button, or the number of completed sales as determined by a receipt produced? What have those numbers looked like for the last few months and how quickly do you expect them to move? Will there be other projects or marketing that will potentially change the numbers at the same time or before this project? Your team needs a target that’s as clear as possible. Don’t put them at the firing line in the fog with a target obscured by a wall.
    • When – When does this need to be completed and why. Nothing kills a project team’s morale more than some arbitrary date set by some unknown person. Tell them why the date is important. Is there another project that’s waiting for this one? Will the problem get significantly worse every day it’s left unresolved? If they come up with a better option that takes 2 weeks or 2 months longer, will you even consider it? You’ll likely be competing with other projects for their time and effort. You need to inspire them to find ways to keep the project on track.
    • How – How will the project be managed? Will everyone keep up with their own tasks or is one person being assigned to coordinate and track? What parameters on time, resource, or money should set off alarms?

Finally done? Not so fast.

Once you go through all this, the Project Manager will completely change it. They’ll spend possibly weeks putting it in a different format and changing all your carefully chosen words. It will be incredibly frustrating for you and feel like a complete waste of time. Get over it. They’re verifying their own understanding and translating into IS-speak. It’s their job.

Your job at the end of the translation is to go back to your original document. Have the PM show you where each key piece is included in their documentation. Ask them what other information was included that wasn’t in the original. Make sure their interpretation reflects your reality.

Getting projects done with or without a Certified Project Manager

A manager once came to me for advice on how to approach a project manager’s boss.

“My project is a disaster! I just saw a demo and there’s nothing done that was supposed to be done, but they did all this other stuff that doesn’t even matter. Now they’re telling me it’s going to be another two months to actually do what I wanted them to do. And half the programmers are saying they can’t spend any more time on it. They’re supposed to be on another project. I can’t believe the project manager messed this up so badly! I’m going to her boss. You know him better than I do. How can I get him to get rid of her and get me someone capable of getting this done?”

It took three questions to find the root cause:

  1. What is your project mantra? His answer was vague and confused. He wasn’t sure off the top of his head what the key deliverable was.
  2. What was the team’s original level of involvement and understanding? He didn’t know. The assigned business analyst drove the original meetings. But, according to him, there was a lot of documentation and it looked okay.
  3. How have the status meetings been going? He didn’t know. He hadn’t been to more than one or two. According to him, that was the project manager’s job!

The problem wasn’t the project manager. It was the person standing in front of me asking for someone to be held accountable. 

The word “project” means something that is contemplated, devised, or planned; a task requiring considerable or concerted effort. Most of your daily time is likely spent working on some sort of project. Yet the mere mention of the word generates nightmare visions of gantt charts, time reporting, project managers constantly hounding you for status. We immediately see failure, cost and time overruns with reduced or nonexistent functionality. And when the project fails, most people blame the project manager. They push to replace the incompetent ones and hire more expensive, more experienced, better trained ones.

The answer isn’t better project management. The answer is better project sponsors.

You need to complete projects successfully, some with and some without a project manager, projects that actually make a difference to your company, your customers, and your career. If you think that’s the project manager’s job, good luck. If you are ready to be responsible for your own projects, my next posts will make you a more successful project sponsor, regardless of the size of the project or the resources at your disposal.


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