Surprise – the arch enemy of good management. If there is a single thing that shows bad management it is when the manager gets surprised. Has it ever happened to you that you were surprised by feedback from someone on the team? Has it ever happened to you that you were surprised that someone on your team quit? Or that the project is delayed? Or that competitor introduced a new product way better than yours? What went wrong? Why were you caught by surprise?
Not understanding the risks
One of the most common reasons why you get surprised is not understanding and not tracking the risks. In project management one of the basic tasks of a project manager is to constantly track and evaluate risks, both internal and external to the project. On a regular basis you should sit down and consider all the risks, their severity and probability of occurrence. Based on this analysis you can then devise mitigation strategies to lower the chance of these risks materializing or at least limiting their impact.
The same goes to people management. If you are surprised by feedback you are getting from your team or by someone on your team quitting it means that the communication between you and the team is broken. It means that you were not able to create environment where people are open and trust you. The way out of this is to gradually build trust by trusting your team, and by providing regular feedback and getting one. It is also important to have a contingency plan. This means removing single point of failure situations so even when there is a surprise in the form of key person either leaving or suddenly underperforming you have someone else who can easily step in. You can read more on this in How To Avoid “Single Point Of Failure” Situations In Your Team? post.
Not communicating with stakeholders
Sometimes people know about the problems but don’t realize that you are the one who also needs to know. You then get surprised by something that everyone else actually knew about. This usually happens when people responsible for the project don’t know who all the stakeholders are and who should be informed about potential risks and issues. To remedy this we need to get back to open and honest communication and especially to setting up the right expectations.
If this is the situation you find yourself in the last thing you want to do is to blame others for not telling you. Most likely it is completely your fault and again one that is easy to solve in the future. If you want to get some pointers check this post One Question You Should Never Ask.
Being afraid of negative consequences
If the project gets delayed chances are that someone on the team knew about it but was afraid to speak up. It is never good to be the bearer of bad news especially if there are some past instances of people being punished for it. For many people it is better to risk the future wrath of their manager than the wrath that can happen today if they speak up. The thought is that something may happen to fix the problem or there can be other problems, bigger problems that will hide the issue they see.
If this happens in your team you have a serious problem as it points to a really toxic culture where open communication is being punished, people are afraid to take risks and mistakes are not being forgiven or forgotten. It is also more likely that you will not learn about issues until it is too late or until there is someone to blame. What to do in such environment? There is no easy fix. You need to change the whole culture of the company or the team and that means significant changes in the way you behave and most likely significant changes in the management to get some fresh wind on board.
Having over-optimistic expectations
This is essentially underestimating the impact the external environment can have on the project. It might be that you forgot to consider a holiday or flu season coming. You may have underestimated the time your partner organization needs to deliver their piece that is key for your team to finish the work. Or you may have underestimated changing needs of your stakeholders.
External factors are always difficult to predict and usually impossible to influence. To be able to deal with issues coming from outside you need to go back to your list of potential risks and mitigation strategies. If there is some external influence that has a high probability of occurrence but at the same time you don’t have means of mitigating it then you need to have a way how to remove it completely when the time comes. As the saying goes “If you don’t have a plan B, you don’t have a plan at all.”
Playing a super hero
This point is about overestimating the abilities of your own or of your team. Managing software development projects for years I learned one basic truth: software developers are chronically over optimistic about estimating effort needed to develop new features in the product. Even when they start to feel that things will take longer they will do their best to still manage it rather than admitting there will be a delay. They believe in their own skills and abilities to catch up and deliver what was promised.
Unfortunately, this often leads to situations that you learn about delays at the day when the feature or the product was supposed to be finished. What to do with such situations? Couple of steps pop up in mind. First, you need to spend time and effort on educating your team about how to properly estimate the effort to get something done and build environment where people are willing to raise their hand at the first sign of issues and ask for help. You also need a good way to track the project and that usually means regular review of the progress. To be able to track where the project is you need to split it into manageable pieces. If there is hundred hours for a particular feature it may be difficult to track and you may learn that it will take double the time only after spending ninety hours on it. If you divide it into ten smaller features each taking ten hours you will discover issues maybe already after ten hours spent as the first smaller piece will not be delivered at time. If you want to know more about how to manage projects in this piece by piece way consider learning more about agile methodologies like SCRUM.
Twitter type summary: “A good manager should never get surprised by anything as it points to a failure of understanding risks, miscommunication or broken trust.”
What are your tips & tricks on how to deal with surprises? Are there some situation when you believe surprises are good for business?