One Guaranteed Way to Fall Flat on Your Face

Saturday Night Live (SNL) has been a mainstay of American sketch comedy for decades. One gag that never seems to get old is when someone falls flat on their face, literally. Physical comedy has gotten laughs for the likes of Chevy Chase back in the 70s, Chris Farley back in the 90s (who can forget “in a van down by the river”?!), and more recently, Melissa McCarthy, a guest host who trips on her heels and falls down stairs.

Where else can people land flat on their face and everyone else busts out in outrageous laughter? Good times on late night television!

Do you know when somebody falling on their face is not funny? When that somebody is you! There are times in your project management career when you will fall flat on your face. You’re going to make a mistake, miss a date, or send out inaccurate information by accident. In spite of your best intentions and careful attention to detail, honest mistakes are going to happen from time to time; there’s just no way around it.

However, there is one classic mistake you can avoid as a project manager, and that is committing to a date BEFORE you have had a chance to discuss it with your project team. You’ll not only fall flat on your face the first time you do it, you will trip and fall every time you make the same mistake from that point forward. Hopefully, you’ll learn your lesson the first time.

Here’s the Trap

Have you ever seen a picture of the anglerfish? This is the fish with a big mouth, a million teeth, and most interestingly, what looks like a fishing pole protruding from its head. The anglerfish dangles this lure in front of its open mouth, which attracts other fish. They head towards the angler fish instinctively for what they see is a free meal. They are right about the free meal, in a sense. They end up being the free meal by falling for the anglerfish’s gag.

The same trap can be set for us as project managers, and here’s how: an internal or external client comes to you and says, “I’ve got a new [project, deliverable, change, whatever it may be] that I really need to get done. We’re certainly willing to pay for it; however, I need to have it by this date.” You immediately respond with the fact that you can’t commit to a date without taking it back to the team first.

“C’mon,” they say. “Aren’t you the project manager? Don’t those guys report to you? I’m sure you can move a couple of things around to make this happen. After all, we’ve been doing business together for years now. You know I rarely ask for anything like this.” To the client, you have access to schedules and timelines, and they may believe it’s within your authority and right to make a decision says the team’s feedback. They continue to dangle the opportunity in front of you, hoping to lure you in. You may even find it hard to turn your head away.

But, we all know it’s a trap! Why are those opportunities so alluring, anyways? There are a number of reasons why we fall for them:

  • It Appeals to Your Ego – I mean, after all, you are the project manager. You’ve worked hard to get into this position and you know you’ve done a good job. Your client is right on that count; you can tell the project team what to do and when to do it. You have the power and authority to make these types of decisions and this might be just one of those times where you exercise that privilege, for the simple reason that you can.
  • It Appeals to Your Desire to Influence – The second reason a new but ad-hoc opportunity is so alluring is that it also appeals to our desire to influence. We all would like to be perceived as having the ability to exert our power to influence the greater good of the company. You own the schedules, right? You own the resources, right? You own the other four projects that everyone is working on. What’s the big deal in making a couple of priority shifts and moving resources off of one project and on to another? You’ve got the power to pull it off.
  • It Appeals to Your Desire to Please Stakeholders – As much as is within reason, you want to make sure those who are paying for or funding your projects are satisfied. I mean, they’re right again; if the client rarely asks for this type of thing, what’s wrong with pulling some strings on their behalf every now and then?

A client is not being conniving or tricky, and they are not going to eat you for lunch simply because they’ve done a magnificent job of setting the trap. They have a simple request about whether or not you are willing and able to get something done in a certain period of time…and they want an answer from you today. They just want you to commit to a date without checking back on your resources.

Somebody’s getting ready to laugh because you are about to fall flat on your face!

Why it Rarely Works

Good for you if you haven’t made the mistake of committing to a date without checking with your resources first. If we all understood the reasons as to why it rarely if ever, works, we would never fall on our faces again. Here are just a few reasons why it rarely works:

  • The Complexity of Something is Rarely Understood – Nothing is ever as easy as it appears. The last words of a project manager that commits to a date within a vacuum are, “How hard could it possibly be?” This false sense of simplicity imbues some project managers with the assumption that they serve as the subject matter expert on the project. It puts them in a dangerous and compromising position of committing to a date before fully understanding what is involved.
  • It’s Disrespectful to the Team – If you took a moment to reverse roles and put yourself in your team’s shoes, you’d quickly see the second reason why you shouldn’t commit to dates without their knowledge. What if someone on your team committed you to finishing up the WBS on a very complex project by next Monday? What if they never even checked to see how long you thought it would take? “Sure, he can work nights and weekends until this gets done. I’m sure he doesn’t have anything going on this weekend that will prevent him from knocking this out,” says someone on your team. There’s not one bit of professional courtesy in that, and, let’s be truthful, it’s something that would send you over the edge if it happened. Guess what? Your team would feel the same way.
  • “I Won’t Hold You To It” Isn’t Worth the Breath it Takes to Say – Remember when the person that asked you to commit to a date said these words? Well, they don’t remember unqualifying the date. All they remember is that you gave it to them, and believe me—they are holding you to it. If you don’t deliver on that date, they will make all kinds of noise to your boss about how you committed to it. By falling into this trap, you’ve just made your life, and the lives of your disrespected resources, that much more complicated.

The bottom line is that you should never commit to a date without checking with your resources first. It will take a bit more time to clearly understand the estimates in order to get real numbers, but it will save you immeasurable time in the future. Keep your day job and save the physical sketch comedy for Saturday Night Live. You’ve got a job to do and you need to take every measure you can to avoid falling flat on your face.

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