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Pulling Your Team Through a Project Crunch

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, download NDepend and take it for a test drive.

Society dictates, for the most part, that childhood serves as a dress rehearsal for adulthood.  Sure, we go to school and learn to read, write, and ‘rithmetic, but we also learn life lessons.  And these lessons come during a time when we can learn mostly consequence-free.

During these formative years, pretty much all of us learn about procrastination.  More specifically, we learn that procrastination feels great.  But then, perhaps a week later, we learn that procrastination actually feels awful.  Our young brains learn a lesson about tradeoffs.  Despair.com captures this with a delightfully cynical aphorism: “hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.”

The fact that we laugh at this indicates something interesting.  Whereas we learn most childhood lessons and internalize them (e.g. don’t touch a hot stove), we don’t learn all of them this way.  Procrastination falls into this latter category.  We learn its perils, but we do it anyway, for various reasons.

As someone in the software industry, I suspect you can appreciate this.  Even if you diligently get out in front of all of your work, your organization may not follow suit.  So I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of so-called “crunch time” over the years.  Crunch time occurs when you put a disproportionate amount of effort right before an important milestone.  Kinda like waiting until the night before the due date to write a 10 page essay on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Today, I’d like to talk about surviving these crunches.  How can you navigate them to come out on the other end with your team’s morale intact?

Beware the Death March

For argument’s sake, I’ll draw a fine line.  Crunch time and the so-called “death march” can seem like the same thing, but I submit that they differ importantly.  Crunch time involves working hard in a spurt to succeed.  Death marches involve working hard indefinitely with a high probability of failing anyway.

The first step for pulling a team through a crunch is to ensure that you’re not instead dispatching them on a death march.  If your organization has the unfortunate habit of getting itself into death marches, you have serious problems on your hands that transcend the immediate future.  At an organization like this, I’d recommend looking for escape avenues and hinting to others that they might do the same.

If this sounds bad or like the height of disloyalty, I suggest a bit of perspective.  Your organization is about to ask you to burn yourself out on an indefinite timeline for something that will probably fail.  Unless you’re a masochist, what about that warrants your loyalty?

Offer a Reward Good Enough that It Hurts a Little

Okay, so we’ve established that you don’t work at the kind of organization that sentences people to death marches.  This means we’ve likely culled a significant percentage off of the bottom and find ourselves left with decent places to work.

With this in mind, I suggest that you start thinking of ways to thank the developers.  And I don’t mean sending out an email at the end of the effort thanking all of the little people.  I mean thanking them in a way that shows you really appreciate them.

My dad explained charitable giving to me when I was a child.  I asked him how to know the right amount to give.  He responded by saying something like, “you should give an amount that makes you kind of wince and think ‘ouch’ because it’s a lot.”  I recommend applying this advice to the team.  Forget the $40 Target gift cards, and do something much more significant.

Think of this as both a morale boost and a future incentive.  Needing to crunch means an ipso facto organizational mistake.  Pay your penance this time and then get it right next time.

Go into “Servant Leader” Mode

Speaking of organizational penance, prepare yourself to show some humility and grace.  Normally I steer clear of the term “servant leader” because I encounter many more disingenuous uses of the term than appropriate ones.  All too often, managers toss this around as a way to affect humility without actually having any.

But, during crunch time, whether you have it or not, you should affect some.  And you should let your team feel its full effect.

You’re asking them to come in early and leave late, so come in earlier and leave later than they do.  Use that extra time in the morning to buy them breakfast and then to clean up the dinner you bought them before they left.  Generally spend your time making them comfortable, removing obstacles from their path, and helping them work effectively.

Nothing torpedoes morale faster than management giving a “we all need to burn the midnight oil” speech and then heading home at 5.  But even without acting in such brazen fashion, you can foster resentment.  Do your best to make it impossible to say, “must be nice to be them.”

Differentiate Between Crunch and Burn-Out

Not all crunching happens equally.  For example, you can ask people to work 10 hour days for a couple of weeks without having an undue effect on their lives.  But if you ask them to work 18 hours per day for a solid month, things can get ugly.

People need a certain amount of rest and people need to see their families.  Slack time exists in schedules, and people can crunch, but if you start subjecting them to physical exhaustion and deteriorating home life, everyone loses.  As far as the company goes, excessive hours can actually diminish effectiveness.  This means that working people too hard produces diminishing and then negative returns.  You might actually miss the deadline more if you work them too much.  And, on the human side, you can create lasting health and personal consequences for the people in question.

Work something out with the people doing the crunch where you get extra mileage out of them, but where you don’t work them to death.  Monitor them for signs of burnout, and devise ways to give everyone a break here and there.

Appeal to Their Sense of Purpose

I’ll close out with perhaps the most philosophical piece of advice I have.  If you haven’t seen this video by RSA Animate, “The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” give it a watch.  For knowledge workers, money starts to matter less than autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Asking people to crunch certainly won’t appeal to their sense of autonomy, and it likely won’t help with mastery.  Thus it must contribute to their sense of purpose for them to feel good about it.  Do they have skin in the game?  Does a successful delivery benefit them in any way beyond whatever monetary reward you’ve cooked up?

Consider startup founders, for instance.  While they generally have heaping helpings of autonomy, they also have intense purpose.  They’ll work 80 or 100 hours for weeks at a time chasing their vision.  Staff software developers generally don’t have equity, so giving them purpose requires more creativity.  Nevertheless, figure out a way to get their broader buy-in so that they feel a sense of ownership and willingness to suck it up.

Unequivocally, your best solution is to stop needing to crunch.  But, short of that, you need to show people across the board that crunching for this cause is worth it.

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hernan cortez
Guest

I hate when they come and say “we promised to deliver by X months”…. why? who told you we can deliver it?

Erik Dietrich
Guest

In terms of management philosophy, if people are making promises on behalf of a group (such as, say, software developers), they should promise capabilities and not scope. If an exec, for instance, says that the company has to be able to deliver a “contact management solution” to its customers, it can leave the engineering group some wiggle room with scope and specifics in terms of the overall goal. But locking in scope and time frame both (even if they do get nominal buyin from engineers) is a recipe to disappoint customers and burn out engineers.

hernan cortez
Guest

that’s what usually happens.
it’s August now, so they sit and say (maybe meeting with some solution architect) and saying “mmmm we should be ok with 6 months”.
and there you go. you got 6 months. scope? some scope has to be there. you can’t go live without key features.

Phil
Guest

I’ve seen people leave over “crunch-time”, especially when the deadline was forced upon them despite their own professional insistence that it would take longer. That’s a case where you’ve got management actually REMOVING autonomy AND mastery. The additional kicker in at least one case was the lack of purpose and this developer was losing his best friend at the time…all the while putting in 10-12 hour days! The upshot was that future efforts took longer due to resource reduction.

Effective planning and communications is critical when you’ve got a deadline.

Phil
Guest

but sometimes they get it wrong. and then what? let’s have the engineers work harder. hey, let’s throw in some tacos in the morning and maybe coke and a sandwich at 7 pm. that will make them work harder.
and at the end of the death march. we will throw in a small bonus so they will forget about it.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

A death march should be an ipso facto terminal arrangement, IMO, for anyone with options. But a temporary crunch isn’t without cost, either. That has a high burn rate for everyone involved and constitutes a failure of some kind or another. Organizations should use these sparingly or, better yet, never.

Brian O\'Callaghan
Guest
I must admit I’m a bit disappointed in this particular article; I see a huge gulf between what you’ve written here and what you’ve written previously in stuff like the Beggar CEO and Sucker Culture. I understand that you’ve hedged several times by saying “you really oughtn’t do it”, but this article still reads like a training manual for Journeyman Idealists. Culturally, we shouldn’t be trading stories where 10-hour days for weeks at a time is the mild example. –But if you ask them to work 18 hours per day for a solid month, things can get ugly. “Oh, cool,… Read more »
Phil
Guest
You’ve got a good point about the comparison between 18 and 12 hour days @brian. And the whole part where managers come in early and leave late…just all the time anyways. It’s a recipe to make you feel like you have to. As if you’ll earn extra points by “outstaying everyone else”. There’s an unfortunate bit of truth in that. It’s likely more slanted the other way though – if you leave before everyone else or come in last. But if you’re done with your work for the day, why not just go home? That all comes down to organizational… Read more »
Matthieu Cneude
Guest
I am myself a developer and I think this article is pretty good. Let me explain: crunch time happens because everybody can make mistakes. Developers make a lot of mistakes as well as managers. Crunch times happen because of those mistakes. What is really important is: 1) Management needs to see their mistakes and assume them (or whoever is responsible for that) 2) They need to communicate clearly the reason of the crunch time and the rewards 3) Developers need to feel that the management listen to their advices to prevent the future crush times 4) Everybody has to be… Read more »
Brian O\'Callaghan
Guest
I’m still having trouble with the end. “Appeal to their sense of purpose” sounds like “Appeal to their love of the game,” which doesn’t sound like it “hurts” at all. I believe the research regarding motivation, money, and purpose, but I’m not certain purpose can be externally imposed and I’m quite jaded about managers using manipulative psychological tactics instead of honest discussion about expectations. I prickle when the advice to up-and-coming managers is “extract performance beyond what was agreed upon by playing head-games, here’s how!” … But maybe you’re already saying something I agree with but I’m being obtuse: Provide… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
I hadn’t thought of these things as mutually exclusive. In other words, I’d advise managers in need of a crunch to offer additional pay or comp time, as well as tying the effort to some goal that doesn’t just involve padding shareholder pockets or securing a bonus for a VP or something (hopefully that exists). You actually summarized my position nicely after the ellipsis — a good manager will recognize that they’re calling in for a big favor, offer actual compensation for it, while also making it clear how the effort helps with some goal that hopefully means something to… Read more »
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