Dangers of Survival Mode
Monday, November 3, 2014
Roy Osherove

I have just finished teaching a two day elastic leadership class in Denmark. One of the exercises I ask leaders to do is to try and finish a time based LEGO building exercises while the world if crumbling around them (lots of factors that create chaos).

The goal of that exercise, where I play the customer, is to win by delivering to the customer what they expect to be delivered.

This does not mean that what was initially discussed as the requested building is what will be delivered. Team leaders are expected to negotiate and try to change their surrounding "reality" by discussing and explaining to the customer what they can and cannot deliver, and negotiate on time, feature scope, or amount of people they can work with to achieve the task.

It's always a very interesting experiment to see how people handle the stress associated with Survival mode.

Survival mode is that awful place where you are over committed and have no time to learn, so you are left only "reacting"; fixing fires, cutting corners, and never really proud of your work.

Many times it is a spiral, since lack of time to do things "right" leads to much more messy fixes, and slower release cycles, since everyone has very little confidence in whatever it is they are building.

So, how do people, even leaders with experience, react under this situation? In a very human way. The most common reactions are:

As a result, many teams fails to give what the customer expected in the time negotiated. And many teams fail to even negotiate a reasonable amount of time, or even notice they are building the wrong thing in time, or at all.

You might say "It's just LEGO." But lots of the same symptoms arise in real life software development (and other types of teams).How many projects have you been to where, on the first day of the project, you knew it was going go fail?

There is a certain release in knowing something like this. It helps you shed any responsibility to the well being of a project, and you feel less accountable.

Here's the problem with that approach, though. Many team leaders are "thrown" into a dire situation, thinking that the whole situation is "a given". A fact of life that cannot be changed. Doomed project? Guess we're screwed then. Nothing left to do but twiddle your thumbs.

No. You are paid to change the situation you're in, and do good professional work. If that's not what you are paid to do, I think you should leave your job. Most software team leaders have options if they started looking, and there are plenty of companies out there looking for people who want to be proactive bout making things right.

So, what are those things that people think are "given" that aren't really most of the time?

Article originally appeared on Elastic Leadership (http://5whys.com/).
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