Organizations have work habits, good and bad, just as people do. No news there. Organizations are composed of people and take on the characteristics of the people who work there, especially of the organization’s leaders.
We make every effort to improve the work habits of people, so why do we accept bad organizational work habits and assume that they can’t be changed as well? It’s harder to change an organization than a person, but often the effect is worth the effort, and if you can change the habits of even a few people, you can work toward changing the habits of the organization as a whole.
One of the habits managers try to work with or around is how people feel about and manage time. Some people are pretty loose about time and see deadlines as approximations, while to others, missing a deadline is failing at something. Some people are planners while others are sure that last minute work makes them more creative. These differences cause project failures, intense personal frustration, and often heated disagreement.
These different approaches reflect very personal views of time and seem not to recognize larger concerns like the impact of behavior on the ability of others to get their work done, and the resulting impact on organizational success.
When leaders come up with last minute deadlines or change project goals abruptly, we are often frustrated with this behavior but are sure we can’t change it. We hate the idea of re-doing all that work at the last minute, but accept the changes anyway. After all, the leader is the leader and we follow. Like lemmings.
Time to stop being lemmings and lead in another direction! There is some information out there that if you try a new behavior something like 20 times in a row, then it becomes the new habit and replaces the old one. Here are some steps that might support replacing old, bad organizational habits about time.
1. Back into every deadline to understand it fully. If a deadline looms, then start from the deadline and work backwards to create a timeline and interim deadlines that everyone must meet if the work is to be done on time. Everybody already knows this approach, but the practice needs to become the new habit.
2. Manage up as well as down. Get clarification of the deadlines and reasons for short timelines right at the beginning of the project, and then explain anticipated difficulties. Collaborate on the schedule if possible. If this approach doesn’t work, then at least you can say (or maybe just think), “I told you so.”
3. Anticipate needs; don’t wait for the need to become a crisis and stop the work. Ask everyone involved what is needed to meet the interim deadlines. Take the long view and secure resources and approvals so the work won’t stop while someone tries to find a needed element. For a wonderful example of a leader who could think way ahead, take a look at Soul of a New Machine, a marvelous book about the development of a new computer. Because of the unremitting pressure of deadlines, one designer quit saying that, in the future, he wanted to think about time only in terms no shorter than seasons. Part of your job as a leader is to plan so that others have what they need to do the work you have assigned.
4. Review the plan often. Stay on top of the process and find out why people are not meeting deadlines. Then tackle the issue. This is a step in both staff management and habit adjustment.
5. Bring everyone back on board at every stage of the work. People are more likely to follow plans they have participated in creating rather than those that have been assigned to them. Every project has a glitch somewhere, so check in often so glitches can be identified and addressed early.
6. Address quickly individual behaviors that undermine success. “That’s just him being him,” is not an acceptable explanation for someone not doing the work on time and in good form. If you are the project leader, then you are the only one who can really explain to people why their missing deadlines affects others and the success of the project. Learn how to have these conversations productively. Avoiding them almost always ensures mediocre work, if not failure.
Bad habits, personal or organizational, need to be changed if both people and organizations are to be fully successful. If you can change the habits of even a few people, you have a head start on changing the habits of the organization. It’s worth your best effort.