When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get...Gentle?


Software projects are filled with productivity needs and deadline pressures. As a project manager, you may feel responsible for project deliverables yet highly dependent on others to complete their work. It's common to push, prod, and heavy-handedly coerce your team to go faster. Sometimes this has the desired effect. And even if it doesn't, you can at least claim you pushed as hard as you could. But is that really all that can be done? Eileen Strider suggests another tool at your disposal.

I'm not sure why "gentle" is on my mind—perhaps it's my recent experience as a project team member. It brought back memories of being a project leader in my youth. Some of those memories are painful to recall and accept. Fortunately, I've learned new tools since those days, which give me a greater range of options than I had back then. Gentleness is one of those tools.

Very quickly, projects seem to develop characteristics and a culture of their own. Much has been written about how this happens. And my own experience with projects urges me to write this column on gentleness as a useful tool.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." This is such a long-standing theme in American culture, no one remembers who said it first. I think today it has been adopted as a truism for software projects. Project members expect to be treated with toughness and to be tough themselves. And I think tough has its place—but it's not the only tool that warrants a place on software projects.

As a project manager, I may feel responsible yet dependent on others to complete their work. So I push, prod, and even coerce them to go faster. Sometimes this has the desired effect. But even when it doesn't, I can claim that I did all that I could.

But is that really all that can be done? Let's suppose for a moment that gentleness was a legitimate tool for you to use. It may seem counterintuitive, but what if, when the pressure is on, time is running short and the work isn't done, you could sit quietly with a project member and gently ask what's happening. Then gently listen to him. What if you could calmly ask what might be helpful? What do you imagine might happen?

- The person might unload on you about a ridiculous schedule
- The person might cry, touched by being treated with such sincere attention
- The person might explain he's trying very hard but pushing and prodding is slowing him down
- The person might admit he's stuck and doesn't know what to do
- You might get whatever reaction you can imagine as your worst nightmare

Perhaps you don't ask because you're uncomfortable showing your gentler side. People might think you are a soft touch. Or perhaps you don't trust your own ability to deal with the information. I know I certainly have been guilty of not asking, for all these reasons. And once you ask and hear the information, then you have to figure out what to do. So it seems easier to not ask.The good news is that gently asking and listening can reveal the real state of a project in a way that toughness never will. Here's an example from my personal experience. I had just started a new job as Applications Director. I was meeting with two of the people I'd be managing, the Project Director and one of his project leaders, to bring me up to speed on their largest project. I asked how long the project was originally estimated to take. They said eighteen months. I asked when they currently estimated the project would be complete. They said, "In eighteen months." By this time, I already knew the project was in its fifth year. This all sounded rather strange to me. So I gently asked if they would explain how project estimates were developed. There was a pregnant pause while they decided how they were going to answer this question. Then they said, "We took a project estimating class, but we've never used what we learned. There are only two estimates acceptable to our CIO: six weeks or eighteen months." Wow! Now I had very valuable information. I thanked them for their frankness and focused my efforts on working with my boss, the CIO.

If you can ask gently, hear the information, and then acknowledge its validity, something very interesting seems to happen. You and the project members are able to think more clearly and creatively and decide what actions are best for your project.

How do you add gentleness to your repertoire? Try first being gentle with yourself. Many of us are tougher on ourselves than on others. This is a good place to practice. This also gives you a chance to experience your own reaction to being treated gently. Then, try privately asking one team member a sincere, gently put project question.

Learning any new behavior is awkward. So you're normal if it's uncomfortable for you at first. After you have practiced and feel more comfortable, you can decide if you want to use a gentle approach with a bigger group such as a project team.

Gentleness may never have entered your mind as a project tool. But before you dismiss it too quickly, give it a try and see what happens.

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.