“One moment only it stared out, but as from some great window immeasurably high there stabbed northward a flame of red, the flicker of a piercing Eye; and then the shadows were furled again and the terrible vision was removed.”
– The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King
If you’ve been in the industry for some time, you’ll recall the moments that you were under intense pressure to deliver.
Sometimes this pressure can come from anticipation: your team just happens to be responsible for delivering the most important new feature for the company this year. Pressure to deliver can also come from catastrophe: parts of your infrastructure may not have scaled as expected and are continually on fire, and unless a new solution is developed, customers will start dropping away.
In these moments, you’ll have felt what I like to describe as the gaze of the Eye of Sauron: whichever way you turn, the entire business is looking toward you. It’s uncomfortable. You can feel the heat. There are emails, Slack messages, JIRA nudges, interruptions in person, you name it – it’s constant and stressful.
Depending on your mindset, you can turn these tough situations into a challenging but rewarding experience for your team, or conversely, you can totally fumble. Handled correctly, you’ll be looking at career growth. Handled poorly, and you may find the next high stakes project goes to another team instead.
The Eye glances at you…
But first, how do you know that the Eye has turned its gaze on to your team? There are a number of cues that begin to become more frequent and intense:
- Increased interest in your project from stakeholders. You’ll have to bat them away, rather than ask repeatedly for them to turn up.
- Senior members of the business beginning to probe into the status of your project, such as when you’re grabbing a coffee in the kitchen, or walking down the hallway. You may have never spoken to these people before. Why are they talking to you now?
- Your boss, or bosses’ boss, being more direct and intense with the progress of your work. Why do they care more than usual?
- Noticing how your upcoming feature is being hyped internally and externally. It may now be perceived as the headline launch of the year, even though that was not apparent when you started the project. Why is the business sending out teaser tweets when the UI isn’t even designed yet?
- Or, quite simply, everything is on fire and the platform won’t work unless your team digs their way out of this hole. The support ticket queue is getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger…
Regardless of how the situation has unfolded, it’s important to increase your vigilance and take extra effort to manage you and your team’s way through this period of heightened pressure. Handled deftly, you’ll fully own the tough situation and have something to celebrate once you deliver. You’ll also earn the team some much needed breathing room afterwards.
Under the Eye
Are you feeling the heat?
Although the increased pressure will make your daily activities harder, there are some principles that can help you through these periods. Try to ensure that you are applying them daily, through your discussions, meetings and decisions.
- Team alignment: When you’re under the Eye, your team will probably know. But if they don’t, or if you’re purposely shielding them from knowing, then that’s a bad idea. Utilize the pressure in a positive way: align the team around what they need to achieve, make sure everyone understands how to succeed, and then push them forwards towards the goal.
- Communication: At times of immense pressure, you’ll want to increase the visibility of what the team are working on. Consider writing a weekly (or more frequent) update to stakeholders. Depending on the size of your company, a weekly newsletter to the wider organization might be suitable too. Either way, you’ll want to make it absolutely clear what you’re working on, how you’re progressing, and any key decisions that you’ve had to make. Always invite responses and feedback: it prevents frustration if you open up a channel of communication for others to reply.
- Release frequently: Since your cadence is of utmost importance, ensure that you’re releasing frequently so that your stakeholders can follow along with your latest builds. The more time that you have for feedback in stressful situations, the better. Don’t keep code held back until the deadline; it just makes the event more stressful and the resulting mega-merge might cause all sorts of bugs. Use feature toggles and keep shipping to production.
- Pragmatism: As dates loom nearer, or as the system continues to ignite, you’ll need to make pragmatic calls on speed of development, quality of the code, and creation of technical debt. As much as it can be painful for idealists in your team, you’ll likely end up shipping some shonky code in order to get the work over the line. However, make note of every hack you put in so that you can tidy up and refactor later.
- Work hard: As a leader, you need to set the example for the rest of the team. Put in the work. The hardest projects can become career-defining moments. Own them and be there.
A successful high-stakes project is fantastic for your visibility.
Though the graft will be tough, you will succeed. When you’re done, what’s next?
The pain has passed and you are now in the aftermath of the marketing launch for your new feature. Retweets are pinging off everywhere, the company blog posts are churning out, and you can hear the ringing of the virtual cash register.
However, what you do next is very important for the morale of your team.
- Celebrate: This is one of the most critical things. The team has worked extra hard and they’ve met their commitment. Take them out for lunch, or drinks, get some cakes shipped out to the office, put on a gaming night – whatever makes them happy. Make sure that you say thank you for what they’ve done.
- Tidy up and clear down technical debt: As the deadline approached, a whole bunch of little shortcuts may have been taken: a hack here, a missed unit test there. Put aside the next sprint to refactor and tidy up at a more leisurely pace, whilst fixing any production bugs if they arise.
- Self-guided project time: Time can also be put aside in the coming weeks for some self-directed learning. Allow the team time to experiment and to learn something new. This change of pace and direction puts some mental space between the last project and the next one.
- Reflect: Arrange a project retrospective meeting. It’s a focussed way of reflecting on the whole process and discussing what could be handled better next time. Even if the project was run perfectly, the project retrospective is an opportunity to mentally close the current book before opening up the new one.
- Plan and regroup: Take some time to think about what’s next. Are there any initial explorations that can be picked up? Is it time for a design sprint? It’s time to start the discussion, to think about some initial planning, and to get excited about the future.
Protection from the Eye
It’s safe to say that – like any period of “crunch” – intense periods of work are not sustainable. If a team finds themselves under the Eye too often, it will cause burnout and attrition.
This may be unavoidable at a start-up, but that’s an exceptional circumstance: those that are there are fully committed to the ride. However, at a larger company, it is important to consider how projects and expectations can be managed to allow different teams to feel the heat of the Eye in an alternating sequence as time progresses, allowing the other teams to temporarily shift down a gear and regroup.
For example, it is advantageous for your marketing department to space out product launches to maintain a steady flow throughout the year. Why not take advantage of this? Your product organization and your engineers can balance these intense periods of contraction with periods of release and recuperation.
As a leader, you should also actively fight for after-project space for your teams if the business does not give them the opportunity by default. When a big project is over, push back on demands to create the room for the rejuvenating activities in the previous section.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint, after all.