The Thank You Note

Two projects…five years apart…both ripe with lessons for the good manager.  The first project is listed here.  The second will follow in another entry.

Five years ago, a company was undertaking a massive project.  It was changing the technology behind how it interacted with its customers.  It was a massive project that was going to take years.  However, the promise was there that this would significantly improve the customer’s experience with the company, increase automation, and capture incredible amounts of data, which could later be mined.

As it was a technology project, the main driver in this was the IT department of the company.  If you have read any project management theory, you know that IT, or any other service provider in an organization, should not be the driver of a project.  They sit at the table, yes, but it is the business that drives the project.  Unfortunately, nobody at this particular table had read project management theory.   IT was in the driver’s seat for this project.

However, being the driver, IT was also under the gun to deliver based on the unrealistic timelines they had set out.  The head of IT at that time didn’t want to say ‘no’, so an incredible burden was placed upon the IT staff.  It is not an exaggeration to say that staff in that department had to decide between quitting their job or facing the breakup of their marriages or other relationships.  People were working double shifts on a routine basis for months at a time.  If they complained about the hours, they were sanctioned.  If they brought up a defect, they were silenced.  Nothing mattered but getting the project done.  Human Resources at the time processed an incredible amount of separations from the company, and had to search for an incredible amount of skilled technical people to fill in those gaps.  It was not a good time to be a member of the IT department, and it seemed no one in management cared.  The project had to be a success.  The human cost was both staggering and ignored.

The project delivered, and the system went online on the day mandated.

Again, project management theory mandates that a project be closed.  Good project management theory states that you need to thank those who put all the effort into the project so they will feel appreciated and, if you need to call up on them again, they will want to work on your future projects.  While the appreciation needs to be given throughout the project, the bare minimum is appreciation at the end.  If this is the measure, then this project followed the rules…sort of.

Soon after the project was finished, an announcement came from the head of the company via an e-mail blast.  In it he expressed his appreciation for everyone’s hard work, and as a token of his appeciation…there were cookies in the company cafeteria.  While I don’t know the exact wording of the note, it is said that the note hinted that each employee should avail themselves on one cookie.

One cookie.

One cookie.  For three years of hard work on some people’s part.  For the straining of marriages to the breaking point.  For abuse from some managers (definitely not all) to get deadlines met.  For making people’s lives a living hell.

Somewhere along the way, it must have been made known that the staff wasn’t exactly, shall we say, as appreciative of this as the upper management might expect.  The suggestion was floated that a nice bonus for the IT staff and others who worked on the project might be in order.  This was presented to the head of IT, who rejected it.  Nonsense, she was reported to have said, people don’t want money.  What they want is to feel appreciated.  So, instead, let’s write each person a personalized thank you note.

A thank you note.

Well, it would be hand written, so the staff would know that is was truly appreciative.  Luckily, wiser heads prevailed and the staff involved in the project did get bonuses.  They never did get the note, however.

Sarcasm aside, this episode offers some great insights into what good management should look like.

First, a good manager is courageous enough to say when something is impossible.  In this case, the head of IT should have said that the timeline was not feasible for her staff, and that the company would have to reduce the scope of the project, give the project an extended timeline, or greatly increase the staffing levels.  The managers of staff who were killing themselves should have told the upper management about the sacrifices being made and how it was unfair.  Now, in fairness, some managers did, and they were quickly swatted down by upper management, who only had eyes for the deadline they had promised.

Second, a good manager has his or her eyes on the employee.  How effective can an employee be who is working a 14 hour shift five days a week?  If the manager could not change the project timeline or staffing numbers, then they needed to get creative about their people to get them rest, or at least a break.  Again, reports were that some did, but others showed a callous disregard for their employees’ welfare on a consistent basis.

Third, a good manager knows how to show appreciation.  Use your favorite search engine and query ‘non-monetary rewards’ and you will find hundreds of articles on how to thank an employee without breaking the bank.  I can be pretty sure that one cookie is not in those lists.  A tray of cookies is good for the end of a club meeting, not a three year project that took hundreds of thousands of person hours.

A thank you note is actually a good way of showing appreciation, but not for a three year project that took hundreds of thousands of person hours.  Equating a monetary bonus with a thank you note is simply an indication that the manager is so out of touch with the sacrifices made by his or her employees that they need some serious reeducation and intervention.

A coda to this story.  Shortly after the project finished and the technology was in place, a powerful group of advisers to the company called for an audit of how the company handled the implementation of the technology.  The audit reflected serious mismanagement on both the project and people sides of the house.  Some people, including the head of IT, were let go, realignment of some business units were undertaken, and a project management methodology was put in place different from what was in place before.  As good as these steps were, it is also disturbing that more money had to be spent on a project when many of the issues could have been avoided by some good management practices.

Next time, we will fast forward five years, to see if any lessons were learned.

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