Monday, May 6, 2013

Don't (Suddenly) Change the Rules on the Players

A long time ago I was involved in a software implementation that was supposed to be revolutionary for the company. There were hired contractors that were software experts, and recruited personnel from inside the company who were Subject Matter Experts (SME). I joined the group late, as a SME about Project Management. The group was only weeks away from the first implementation, and I was "on loan" until the economy started to recover and more projects were available.

During the on-boarding, I was told the same thing that all the SMEs were told. The hours would be long. In order to avoid disruption of the company operations, installations and upgrades would take place during weekends and nights. Also, the implementation schedule after the first location were supposed to be very quick, as it took more than two years to get to the first facility implementation and the timetable needed to be shortened. 

The organization couldn't offer a raise in salary, or comp time for the nights and weekends lost. They did, however, have one incentive:

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A tiered ladder bonus system to any non-contract workers (i.e. the full time guys and girls). It started at a couple of grand, and capped at over ten thousand per implementation. After each implementation, each SME would get a check, moving one rung further up the ladder. This was supposed to happen for each implementation.

Because I joined late, I didn't get the full bonus, but I did get a bonus. I was surprised and thankful. We started on the second implementation. About two months into the implementation, the overall project team was split into two implementation teams, and another facility was added to the rotation. I was on the Team 1. When the implementation happened, both teams were involved, but only Team 1 received the bonus checks. Team 2 was advised that only the team "responsible for implementation" would receive bonus checks about two weeks prior to implementation.

As soon as the 2nd facility was complete, I was moved quickly to Team 2, and the Team 2 SME moved to Team 1 (as he was more knowledgeable about financial project management and his skills were required for facility 4). Again, I worked nights and weekends. This time, after Go-Live, the Project Sponsor walked around and physically handed out checks to each player... but as he handed out each check, he said that the tier system had changed. It was now drastically reduced, and anyone who moved up a tier found the expected pay cut nearly in half. No reason was given for the change.

As soon as the 3rd facility was complete, guess who got moved back to Team 1? Although my fellow SME was more knowledgeable about financial project management and the software settings, my previous work in the company was directly with the information required for systems entry (this will be a wholly different blog entry... trust me). I worked nights and weekends, trying to get billions of dollars of transactions and information correct for entry into the software. I was the only one who understood it.

About a month before Go-Live for facility 4, I was told that I didn't qualify for the bonus check because I wasn't involved since the beginning of facility 4. I was told this by my immediate supervisor, who looked sheepish and scared about how I would react.

Now I am a good soldier (thank you US Army), I swallowed the pill without blowing up on my immediate supervisor, and asked to speak to management. I was told that he would look into it. I recall him "looking into it" for almost 2 months with lots of "gentle" prodding on my behalf.

On the day of Go-Live, I managed to confront the managing group about it (because they were all present for the implementation). I informed them about what I had been told and asked why my contribution wasn't going to be recognized, considering I was the only one that could accomplish specific tasks. They made excuses and ran.

Two weeks after Go-Live I got another check (after near constant questions and pestering) at the reduced tier system levels. This was the last bonus I received, before moving back to the group that "loaned" me out.

Now, this sounds like a lot of dirty laundry, and I guess you could call it griping, but there is a lesson here, otherwise it wouldn't be a blog entry. This isn't the only time that the "rules" changed suddenly on the team, but it is one of the more dramatic. This destroyed any trust the team had for management, and the conversations between the staff members showed how little everybody cared for management and their decision making process.

How could this have been avoided? COMMUNICATION!

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I am not in a position to dictate whether the changes were or weren't necessary. I was not in the room when these decisions were made. What I can comment on is that the changes were not COMMUNICATED effectively and that bred distrust. This is something a leader cannot afford as it is our most fragile asset.

Let me give you some examples of how this could be avoided:

There was a large overall team meeting, just after the first implementation when they announced the change from one project team to two implementation teams, the leadership should have announced the bonus change as well. A change in the implementation plan and group layout would be a natural time to tell people about bonus changes. NOT just before implementation, when people are expecting the money for the work completed.

How about the time when the Project Sponsor handed out checks? Again, earlier notice is owed to the players. People were counting on those bonus checks to pay debt or go on vacation, and to suddenly learn about the change when the check is in hand is almost as bad as the National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation bonus of the ""Jelly of the Month Club." With no reason given, the staff is left to guess what caused the change, and to start wondering about what future changes may be coming.

Finally, in my specific case, where I had to chase down the check. This shows a lack of COMMAND. If you make a decision, for the good of the project, the team, whatever, YOU HAVE TO OWN IT! Do not make a minion tell the person. Do not duck the questions. And do not run away when confronted.  OWN the decision, give an explanation, and at the very least tell the person (or people) yourself!

All of these things show a lack of respect for your project team, and only generate a negative work environment; especially when people have other viable options. The software package in question is still incredibly popular. The reason for the tiered bonuses in the first place wasn't just to compensate for hours spent, but to keep people interested in reaching the next tier rather than leaving for a more immediate financially appealing opportunity. As experienced implementers, any of the full time employees could have left with minimal notice and probably found better jobs (some did).

Hopefully, you are taking away something from this blog entry. Don't suddenly change the rules on the players during a project. Your team works hard and deserves better. You owe them honesty and transparency, so that they team can adjust to the situation. If not provided, the team is left to speculate, which can only cause future friction.  With everything they do for you, you owe them that much.

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