Monday Mornings with Madison

Beginnings and Endings – How to Handle the Hardest Parts of Most Endeavors – Part 2

Word Count: 1,948
Estimated Read Time: 8 min.

Imagine this scenario.  The company’s CTO has been tasked with identifying and customizing a new CRM software system for an organization that will help the Business Development team to identify, capture and track all leads and aggregate data about them, provide a process for measuring their likelihood to convert from prospect to sale, facilitate points of contact to spur conversion and track all communication on an ongoing basis.  It is a major undertaking.  There are a multitude of software programs that do these tasks, but the system must be integrated with the company’s manufacturing and operations software as well as its accounting program and its marketing system.  And it must be customized for industry-specific needs.  An entire team of programmers will need to work on this projects with many moving parts.  And many departments will use the system for information about prospects/ and customers’ past purchasing behavior in order to guide future marketing effort and predict sales results.  After a great deal of due diligence and development of a detailed plan for the software architecture, a software is chosen and the process of customization and integration begins.  After a year of diligent effort and extensive Beta testing, the software is now ready to be rolled out.  But as the date approaches to roll out, there is one delay after another.  There is deep reluctance by the team to release the software to a limited team for use just yet.  Month after month, the team hesitates to let the cat out of the bag and allow even a few sales staff to start using it.  Why?

There are many reasons why the end of a project drags on.  Some of the most common are:

  1. Choice overload – Researchers from Columbia University and Stanford University conducted a series of experiments on whether more choice is better. Their findings indicated that a greater number of choices actually made it harder to make decisions and solidify choices. They also found that selecting from a larger number of choices tended to make people less satisfied with their final decision. This also applies when working on a project.  There is an unlimited number of choices about the tools to use, the direction to take the project, and how long to spend on it. While this can seem freeing and empowering, an overabundance of options actually makes it more difficult to bring projects to completion.  Even with company-imposed deadlines and a boss holding the team accountable, it is still very hard to finish what has been started.
  2. Tedious and Boring – Another reason it is hard to finish a project or task is because the beginning of a project is usually filled with enthusiasm, excitement and support.  Those working on the project are still fresh and energized as they start building something worthwhile.  As the project continues, immersion in the work becomes deeper and more focused.  The fun starts to wear off and the project becomes something of a struggle.  The joy starts wearing off and the work becomes more tedious.  With the last 10-20% is the trudge toward the finish line, all of the excitement and support has drained away, and the interesting work is done.  What is left is the tedious and boring parts such as building a unit test, fixing bugs, and documenting the code.  That is when reluctance and fatigue set in.
  3. Doubts – The bigger and more important the project, the harder it will be to wrap up and finish.  That’s because there is so much riding on the outcome that no one wants to hear the inevitable criticisms or complaints that might arise once it is completed.  For as long as it is “almost done,” the naysayers have nothing to say.  This causes many to second-guess their work and continue to tweak, fix and make improvements ad infinitum.

While it can be hard to make it to the finish line of a project, it can be made easier by employing a few key strategies.   Most of it involves adding structure and setting limits.

1.  Choose Projects Carefully

Make sure that larger, more ambitious projects are selected or accepted carefully, fully aware of what else is on the plate and whether there is capacity to carry that project.  Putting too much on the plate ensures that a project won’t get finished and a deadline won’t be met.  Overextending is a problem that some people grapple with simply because they can’t say “no” when the plate is already full.  It is important to communicate when a project might seem like a good idea but it is an idea that will never reach the finish line.

2.  Plan and Budget

Not getting to the end of a project is often a byproduct of poor planning.  If a task is not thought through, there is a good chance that there won’t be enough time, money and other resources available to be able to carry it through to the end.  In such cases, the failure to finish was baked in from the beginning.   It is imperative to look at the big picture and ensure that the resources needed for a project are available before even starting.

3.  Limit the Project’s Scope

The old joke asks “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer is “one bite at a time.”  But perhaps it is better not to try to eat an elephant.  According to runner Bill Rancic, “What I think a lot of great marathon runners do is envision crossing that finish line. Visualization is critical. But for me, I set a lot of little goals along the way to get my mind off that overwhelming goal of 26.2 miles. I know I’ve got to get to 5, and 12, and 16, and then I celebrate those little victories along the way.”

While sometimes projects cannot help but be big and grand, it is often better to work on smaller projects, or break a big project into smaller sections.  Phase 1 and Phase 2.  Or Parts 1, 2 and 3.   If it involves launching a new division or a new product line, start with just one part and get that off the ground before going onto to the next part.  Smaller projects can serve as a proving ground to ensure that things are on track and make sense.  Once the first part is off the ground, then there is more insight into how to implement the second and third parts.    For a musician, that might entail writing and recording one song rather than an entire album.  For a web developer, that might mean designing a simple site before tackling one that involves back end programming.

4. Limit the Timeframe and Set a Deadline

Parkinson’s law states that:  “Work expands to fill the time allotted.”  Allowing unlimited time for a project is a formula for disaster.  There’s always more work to do if more time is allocated and allowed. To overcome this trap, set time limits and deadlines.  Every work project must have a deadline… and there must be consequences for blowing deadlines.  If the project is being handled by a team, it is helpful for everyone to agree to the deadline in advance.  The deadline must be written down and placed on every team member’s calendar.  There can even be a wall calendar where each day is crossed off as an ever-present visual reminder of how much time remains.

5. Limit Tools / Complexity

Sometimes the problem isn’t that the task is too big (the proverbial elephant), but rather that there are too many moving parts or too many tools involved.

For example, for the CTO who is customizing a CRM software for the company, it would be easy to spend a wealth of time searching for the “perfect” tool and never get around to choosing one and customizing it for the needs of the company.  But in reality, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” software, and every system has to be customized to work for that particular industry and business.  So it is best to choose one and then get busy adjusting what needs to be tailored.  Execution is what counts.  Or it could mean that the software will simply not integrate into the operational software at the start.  Or it might mean that certain “bells and whistles” that were requested and discussed are simply not provide.

A failure to limit the tools or complexity of project can result in an amount of project detail that is overwhelming and even paralyzing.  It is okay to launch with version 1.0 and agree that there will be updates along the way that will add features as they are most needed.  There are always ways to limit the tools and complexity of any project.

6.  Limit Undo / Editing / Tweaking

Perfect is the enemy of good enough.  Creative people are known for undoing, editing or tweaking their work eternally.  Indeed, according to artist Paul Valery, “A work of art is never finished, but merely abandoned”, and, with the advent of technology, it has never been easier to revise and re-revise work.  Ask any graphic designer and they can surely attest to a propensity (their own and that of their clients) to tweak and edit work with no end in sight.

While the ability to undo is a great beneficial to eliminate erroneous mistakes and major errors, it can also become a crutch and an interruption to workflow and progress.  And, unfettered undoing reduces creative flow and risk.  Once upon a time, when paper, canvases, paints and tape were more expensive, writers, musicians and artists were loath to toss entire portions of work and tweak to the point where the original work disappears.  This is true for any type of project.   At some point, it is important to say “this is what has been created, take it or leave it.”  If there need to be changes made later, they can be done in version 2.0.

7. Amp up the Motivation

Deadlines are powerful motivators for finishing projects.  For some people, however, it’s not enough.  To raise the pressure, put some kind of financial incentive on the line.  It could be a self-imposed penalty paid to a charity if the deadline isn’t met.  Or it could be a friendly wager with a friend to buy him/her a meal if the deadline is blown, and or have him/her buy the meal if the deadline is met.  For companies, that could translate into a bonus for hitting a deadline, or reduction of a bonus if the deadline is not met.  Many government contracts have such incentives built in.

Studies have found that adding financial stakes is more effective than simply asking to be an accountability partner.  Just saying “Hold me accountable to finish this project” is not as effective as saying “I will pay you $100 if I don’t hit my deadline.”   There are even apps that help people with financial motivation related to goals.

8.  Establish an Accountability Team

Working in isolation often leads to missed deadlines.  Given that so many people are now working remotely, it is especially important to set up a team or individual who acts as the accountability police for a project’s progress.  Knowing that there are people who will be asking where things stand serves as rocket fuel to propel projects forward.  The idea that an entire deadline would not go unnoticed means that everyone will feel more motivated to hit targets on track.  Workshops and mastermind groups are designed for just such a purpose.

By using these strategies, chances are good that projects that got off to a good start will finish with flair.  And, in the end, isn’t that what matters?

Quote of the Week

“That’s one thing you learn in sports. You don’t give up; you push to the finish.” Louis Zamperini



© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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