Cool Thing #38: Can you make friends with an ugly deadline?

Or, how one exec turned a behind-schedule project into a gift party.

Today I get to pass along a story from one of my favorite brilliant bosses, Mike Popovich. He’s CEO of Scientific Technologies Corporation (STC), which does information systems in health care, specializing in what they call Immunization Intelligence.

The story starts with the company undertaking a major project for the CDC and state health departments, one that required a massive amount of code. But, as so often happens, there were delays. The project fell behind. That’s when Mike got creative…

The deadline was August 30th.

“Not going to happen,” everyone concluded.

“Push harder and it’ll burn out the team,” Mike was advised.


However, Mike felt this was a chance to come through for the States and the CDC, and for the team itself to have a victory. After pondering what might reinvigorate members of the team, he concluded,

“What excites one person might not stir another. So I decided that we would simply ask each employee what reward he or she would find motivating.”

That sounded good, but it doesn’t take long to come up with a list of potential pitfalls. Mike says, “We knew we needed to ask people for reasonable options, and we trusted them to do so. That left the most common objection: ‘Everyone is just going to ask for money, so you might as well just do the easy thing and give out bonuses.'”

But Mike wasn’t persuaded about the “just money” part. He said,


“You get a bonus check and you put it in your account and it’s gone. You may not even remember it a year later. But you get something with meaning to you, and you might just remember it forever.”

And so the Grant-A-Wish experiment began. Employees were asked not only to come up with three things they might want the company to provide them, but also to decide whether or not they wanted to commit to the extra hours the project needed to make its deadline. Most wanted in, but not all.

I spoke with Kristi Siahaya, one of the STC people charged with delivering the project. Kristi glowed when describing the outcome: “The commitment was something to see. It gave the project a new energy, a faster pulse. It became one of those situations where we simply refused to fail.”

And fail they didn’t. They made their deadline and, instead of burning out the team, it created new camaraderie and the joy of a meeting where the wishes were merrily distributed.

As for the wishes themselves, many employees did, in fact, simply choose bonus cash – BUT, far from all. Some wanted money with a purpose: enough to pay for a family vacation, or for a son’s sport’s team travel expenses. Then there were those who wanted paid time off — for instance, some of the programmers are from India and the extra time would allow them to visit their families back home. Finally, there were those who asked for time at a resort or something tangible, like a new fishing rod.

The upshot? The project got finished on time and the work itself accomplished more than the planners had originally hoped.

Mike says of the Wish program, “It made a difference. I could see that it captured the imagination in a way that mere bonuses did not, and I believe that the ‘captured imagination’ made its way into the project’s final product.”

WHAT CAN WE LEARN?

We might talk about managing time, but what we really should be managing is energy. Let’s reconsider what Mike did in terms of energy management.

Those working on the project were given the option of participating in the final push, choosing whether or not to commit to the Wish program and the
overtime that came with it. That choice is a powerful motivator, in itself.

Then, there was that other choice, the choice of which wishes to list. Imagine what that does to the thought process: instead of thinking about the hours
or the sacrifices, the mind is full of smiling thoughts of picking this-one-no-that-one for the list.

Who doesn’t resent being told to work harder or longer?

But,

who doesn’t delight in being invited to be part of a team

that gets asked to do something hard

and to be offered a prize for doing it?

Said another way, stop working and start winning.

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