Five weeks ago I had shoulder surgery. When I went to the physical therapist this morning, she asked how I was doing. “Discouraged”, I replied. “Progress isn’t where I’d hoped it would be.” She responded by laughing and then turned to the other patients in the room and said (good-naturedly) “She just had shoulder surgery, and she thinks that she should be better by now.” To which everyone else laughed (kindly), including the gentleman with the shoulder-on-ice over in the corner. Then they reminded me that however much I wanted to be healed, and how diligently I did my exercises, these things still take time. Months of time. There aren’t any shortcuts.
The term shortcut is usually used to imply that someone is trying to get away with something – either getting more than deserved, delivering shoddy products, or somehow not doing what they are supposed to do. But you can also look a shortcut as a form of efficiency. There is an old adage – necessity is the mother of invention. I would maintain that looking for shortcuts has birthed a fair few inventions as well. Miracle mops, computer software, 1040EZ or commuter lanes – everyone wants to get from point A to point B as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It’s the same in the business world. You have limited resources to apply to many tasks. We use strategic planning and tactical prioritization to optimize the use of our resources. Any method that you can find to wring more productivity from your resources allows you to do more. Sometimes that means finding a way to achieve an acceptable level of performance for the task using less effort or fewer resources. As project managers, part of our job is to try to find the most efficient way to complete our projects. Often by tweaking processes, not over-engineering the methodology on non-critical activities, and making sure everyone on the team is fully tasked with appropriate but “stretch” deadlines, you can achieve a fair amount of efficiency. And then there are the times when we have to crash the schedule, often by jettisoning tasks and adding team members. Sometimes this works, but often, in my opinion, it can make things worse.
So back to the physical therapy appointment. I am not the most patient person. But I really didn’t have any choice – there is no short cut to healing a shoulder. All I can do is be diligent in my therapy and work hard, even when it hurts, and it will heal. It just takes time.
This got me to thinking about shortcuts and efficiency. There are just some things for which there is no short cut, no efficiency, and no alternative. They just have to be done. Intellectually, we know this. For example, why does crashing a schedule not always possible? Because 9 women can’t have a baby in one month. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown that one out in a schedule meeting.) Think about a landscaping project. You can place the plants appropriately, but it will take growing time to achieve full effect. It cannot be rushed, it cannot be “gone around”. So why does this matter? Because having the ability to identify those tasks which cannot be “crashed”, and particularly identifying them up front, will give you some very important information as you are managing your project. If these items are not on your critical path, you should analyze your schedule to understand if these tasks could drive a risk to your schedule. But as important that the schedule risk is, understanding which tasks happen on their own timeline can help you be a better leader for your team. You will better understand their progress reports and be able to work with your team to better monitor progress. You will be less likely to waste time and goodwill demanding impossible shortcuts. Most importantly, you’ll be prepared to support your team and your progress when the sponsor comes in saying they are “discouraged”, and that “progress isn’t where they’d hoped it would be.”