Troubled Projects and Low Morale

A client has a troubled software project. It’s a common story: senior management is making schedule decisions based on politics and on business imperatives, and is either shielded from, or is willfully ignoring, the reality on the ground – that the schedule cannot be met.

In response to the unreasonable expectations from on high, middle managers are left trying to simultaneously goose more performance out of workers while not burning them out. Absurd deadlines are set forth, only to come and go without consequence.

Everybody knows it’s a joke, yet nobody laughs.

One of the commonest symptoms is a decline in worker morale. On first reflecting on this, I wondered at it. The workers all know that the deadlines are false and that there will be no real consequences for missing them. Shouldn’t that make these unreachable goals be … less bothersome? If we all know it’s absurd, can’t we discount it?

Apparently not. And on further reflection, I think the reason is clear based on other principles that we know about business leadership.

Leaders need to set forth an inspiring vision, set goals, and help workers reach those goals. Leaders also need to give supportive feedback on progress, and help match workers’ skill levels with challenges.

In the “Bataan Death March” stage of a failing project, all of these positive elements of leadership go away.

Leaders no longer set forth an inspiring vision – instead they provide a vision everyone knows is an illusion.

Leaders start setting goals that everyone knows are unreachable. The psychic rewards that workers would get from meeting goals, are taken from them, and they begin to starve for small victories.

Feedback no longer matches real performance – all feedback is going to be negative because it comes in relation to the absurd goals. The positive cycle of good performance and management praise is gone. At best workers are praised for their steadfastness.

And skill levels no longer match the challenge because the challenge has become superhuman.

Is it any wonder morale suffers?

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