What we all miss about project planning

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I love me some Zenger and Folkman. During graduate school, in a particularly train wreck-ish project planning moment (half the team was chasing real knowledge, 1/4 was chasing an “A” and 1/4 was asleep), I actually bought subscriptions to their stuff. They’re good. They write well about management and leadership trends, and the majority of it is backed up by research — now, a lot of the research comes from 360-degree evaluations of managers and employees, and 360-degree evals are basically akin to Nazi Germany, but let’s gloss that over for now.

I’ve worked for about 13 years now. Even though higher education bangs the drum that you’ll get out into the world and do all this strategic and critical thinking, the reality is that most jobs are task-based, heads-down-deliverables-focused slop shows. You need to know a lot about project planning, and the great irony of that statement is that we often don’t teach people about project planning. We just throw them into it!

Let’s say you had a newborn and you’re like “Pfft, I want this kid to be Michael Phelps, but I ain’t got time to train it to do that! I got other targets to hit!” So you chuck the newborn in the pool and are like “Go get it, baby!” (Literally.) You know what happens next? You spend 20 years in the pokey. You know the funniest thing about what I just typed? Obviously the analogy has flaws, but managers do that to employees every day. “I want you to be the best at this, but goddamn it, I got no time to tell you anything! Figure it out!” That’s why most jobs end up being turd burgers devoid of meaning and you hop to another thing.

To bring all this full circle, there’s a great thing from Zenger and Folkman recently that underscores the greatest project planning myth of them all.

The project planning myth: Speed doesn’t kill

I clicked on this Zenger and Folkman article entitled “4 Ways To Be More Effective At Execution” because to me, that’s work in a nutshell. Most leaders are up here — at a macro level — screeching about strategy and vision, but they really want is 12 percent Y2Y growth. Here’s the deal, though: to get that growth, you need solid execution all over your organization. So, in a nutshell, the strategy (the big picture) has to align with the execution (what people do day-by-day). Most places do not align strategy with execution, and that creates pockets all over the company where middle managers are essentially allowed to create their own priorities for their subordinates. Again, turd burgers.

This Zenger Folkman article is good, although it does have a bunch of buzzwords and generic advice (“Give more feedback, especially positive feedback!”). Towards the end, there’s an almost throwaway paragraph which is amazing:

Finally, if you’ve made it this far and you really feel like you’re already doing all of these things, and yet somehow you’re still perceived as having an “execution problem,” consider this: in our research, we also found that there’s almost a one-to-one relationship between leaders who are seen as fast, and those who are seen as great executors. Previous work we’ve done has shown that some of the above things — setting stretch goals, having clear processes in place, and building trust, for example — will help you move faster. But you may also need to give your peers and bosses more evidence of your speed by, for example, being more transparent about how many projects you’re working on and where they are in your pipeline.

Go to roughly the middle of that quote, and read this part: “There’s almost a 1-to-1 relationship between leaders who are seen as fast and those who are seen as great executors.”

We just hit the project planning myth right on the nose.

Project planning and the harried middle manager

When I was working in offices, one of my least favorite things was some target-chasing middle manager rushing past me yelling “No time, man! Gotta get to my 11:30 about Q2 branding possibilities!” Middle managers especially love to throw themselves on the cross at The Temple of Busy — but heck, who am I kidding? We all do. Busy is a drug.

If you go back to that quote above, though, there’s this perception across research that if you’re moving fast and you have a lot going on, you’re probably a good executor. This comes from one of the major problems with most office cultures: we confuse ‘quantity’ of work with ‘quality’ of work and we confuse ‘busy’ with ‘productive.’

Quantity shouldn’t matter — the human brain can really only focus on a finite amount of things — and “busy” is closer to an antonym of “productive” than a synonym, but most people forget that. It’s also busy, busy, busy and go, go, go. We got targets to hit! Deliverables! The bosses are on us!

This ties directly into the “sense of urgency” myth — if you have a direct manager who constantly tells you that everything has a sense of urgency, begin looking for other jobs almost immediately. When ‘everything’ is urgent, that means there’s absolutely no sense of priority at all — it is literally impossible, within the definitions of the terms involved, for ‘everything’ to be a ‘priority’ or ‘urgent’ at a given time. Although, we set up many office cultures that way. See above. Targets to hit, bosses to please, etc.

The danger of the project planning myth

So now we’re at a place where research is showing us that “project planning” is basically correlated with “moving fast, rushing around, juggling lots of balls.” Earlier in that Zenger article, they say this:

On the first point, bosses place a premium on execution, which we define as the ability to achieve individual goals and objectives. In fact, when we asked senior managers to indicate the importance of this ability, they ranked it first on a list of 16 skills.

Alright, so your boss places a premium on execution, in all likelihood. Your boss can usually promote you. The high irony is that if you’re good at execution, you probably won’t get promoted a lot — your boss wants you right where you are, hitting targets for him/her. But I digress.

Now we’re at a place where:

  • “Fast” means “good at execution”
  • “Good at execution” means “pleasing to boss”
  • “Pleasing to boss” could mean “promotion”

So … if you’re always running around claiming how insanely busy you are and how much you’re juggling and calling that project planning, you’ll probably be promoted and become someone else’s boss.

See how the system perpetuates?

A couple of years ago, I listened to a Tim Ferriss podcast where he had a guest (well, obviously). The guest basically says: “It’s my belief that you could walk into any corporate office in America in a suit, grab a stack of papers, and just rush past people saying how busy you were … and in a year or so, you’d get promoted even though no one knows if you even work there.”

That’s true, honestly — not everywhere, but in many places. And it’s in part because of this project planning myth: we confuse “fast” with “good at execution,” when in fact “fast” often means “unable to prioritize anything so always harried and bellowing about how much is going on.”

Why are we rewarding that?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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