This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers
As we discussed when we looked at the High Performance Cycle and goal setting, goals have momentum. In a more precise sense, success has momentum. When we are succeeding, we feel better about ourselves, our work, and the organization we are a part of. How we manage time plays a major role in our perceptions of success.
As we saw earlier in this chapter, when we feel rushed, our perceptions narrow. We don’t see things that are right in front of us. We will even miss things that matter deeply to us: when they felt rushed, our divinity students speaking on the Good Samaritan completely missed their opportunities to live up to the content of their talks. In business settings, people in a hurry will spend days, weeks, or sometimes months not noticing the solution that is staring them in the face.
Whenever we are running behind our schedules, we end up feeling rushed. Being behind schedule might trigger people to work hard, but they do so at the expense of working smart. When we are behind schedule, every minor problem becomes a major disaster. It’s just one more thing that is preventing us from hitting our deadlines and getting the job done! As a result, we tend to respond with quick fixes and overly simple solutions just to get the problem to go away. At one software company, when the product team was clearly not going to make the deadline, the director of engineering grudgingly allowed them another two weeks. They still weren’t ready, so he did it again. This proceeded for about three months! Half of each two week chunk was spent undoing the quick fixes they’d implemented in their frantic race to finish during the prior two weeks, and the other half was spent instituting a new set of quick fixes! The constant feeling of pressure meant that no one had time to think or consider any solution that took more than a few days to implement. In three months of being behind schedule, they probably made about one month worth of actual progress! Had they just extended the schedule by six weeks or two months right from the start, they would have finished a lot sooner.
Conversely, when a team is running ahead of schedule, people are much more energized and creative. The feeling that there is time available means that people feel they have more space to consider alternatives and look for lasting solutions to problems. Unexpected problems become challenges rather than disasters. When a team is ahead of schedule and team members work long hours because they are excited, they are choosing to put in that extra time. When the team is behind schedule, team members are often pushed to work long hours to try to catch up. The choice is no longer really theirs.
Fundamentally, being behind schedule means feeling that we don’t have control of the situation and our time. Being ahead of schedule means feeling that we do have control of the situation and our time. The more control we think we have, the more motivated and focused we are. Individuals and teams that feel in control work harder and produce higher quality results than those that feel that they don’t have control. Thus, a team that is ahead tends to pull further ahead and teams that are behind will often tend to fall further behind until the inevitable triaging of incomplete work allows them to declare themselves done.
Going back to the High Performance Cycle, when we complete goals with a burst of effort and blast across the finish line after being triumphantly ahead of the game, we feel a much greater sense of satisfaction and internal reward. The external rewards also tend to be greater in that situation. When we stagger across the finish line after completing the equivalent of the Bataan Death March, we just feel exhausted and relieved. Internal rewards are lower and satisfaction is lower. It’s the first case that really builds high performance.
Build schedules that you can beat with hard work. If you consistently finish with lots of time left, then your goals are not aggressive enough. If you are always falling behind, then you are too aggressive. Pay attention to the feedback that you are getting as you set deadlines and see if you are making them. It takes a certain amount of effort and practice to make your schedules appropriately challenging but not impossible, particularly because we tend to routinely underestimate the difficulty and time requirements of most tasks: just think about Boston’s Big Dig or that latest home remodeling task you still haven’t finished. Remember that you want to start with easy goals so you can experience early successes and quickly move out ahead of the schedule: that will set the tone for the entire project. Starting with success gets momentum on your side.