Tapping into discretionary effort


Concerns of Project Managers


Russell W. Darnall, Fluor Daniel, Greenville, South Carolina

It was late Tuesday afternoon, near quitting time, and the project management team was gathering in the project conference room for a brainstorming session. John's boss, Jordan Roberts, had asked John to make a presentation to the entire division on motivation. It seems that Ken had told Mr. Roberts that John's project was doing an extraordinary job of tapping into discretionary effort. Now John was expected to make a formal presentation on how the project tapped into this effort, and he, quite honestly, wasn't sure. He was asking his team to put their heads together to develop thoughts that could be put into a presentation format.

After some opening discussion, John summarized what the team thought Ken meant by discretion1 effort. It seems that there is a certain amount of effort that a person cannot go below, at least not for long, without getting fired. That level of effort forms the baseline. Any effort above that baseline is given because people want to give it. Therefore, that effort, if we could measure it, could be called “discretionary.” Almost everybody gives some effort above the baseline, and some people give a great deal more than others. On some projects, everybody on the projects gives more. The question is, why?

“Let's put some structure around our thoughts, “John said, focusing the discussion. “We'll go around the table giving our thoughts on one reason, and I'll record your thoughts on the flip chart. Let's try that for awhile and see if we get anywhere. Andy, can you start us off?”

Andy: Our focus on this project has NOT been on people working harder but working smarter. We look at results. All our recognition centered around accomplishing goals. We only look at activities when we're looking for better ways to improve our work process. We encourage innovation, Maybe that discretionary effort was directed toward creative activities that produced a better product with less effort.

John was making short notes, in his usual precise style, on the flip chart as Andy talked. Andy turned to Danny who was on his right, indicating that he was through for now and it was Danny's turn.

Danny: Building on your thought, Andy, I remember how hard it was for me to walk the project floor and see people talking and NOT jump someone's case. John pulled me back several times, reminding me that we were getting great results. Our focus should never be on the hour-to-hour activities of the project team, but to provide feedback on how they are doing toward meeting goals.

Lucy: I think people enjoyed giving that effort because they were “stakeholders.” They bought into the project vision and understood what we were trying to achieve. Everybody understood how they contributed to project success. It took a lot of work. Sharing all kinds of information and charts, but people needed that information to know how they were contributing to success.

Geoff: Something special. We created a special project from the beginning. Something people wanted to join. If you are doing something special and see something meaningful, you give more because you get more out of it. Celebrations, visits from top management and letters from the client, ‘all reinforce this feeling of specialness.

John was writing as hard as he could, trying to capture the ideas. They had gone around the table once and were waiting for John to catch up and share his ideas. John turned around and gave a slight nod to Andy. Andy thought for a minute before speaking up. It was amazing; he knew exactly what that nod meant. It meant for him to take the next turn. In six short months, the team was talking in shorthand and communicating without talking. “We were becoming more efficient in our communications, and I wonder if that impacted our performance,” Andy thought, but he decided to share a more important topic.

Andy: We are having fun. Work is easier when you're having fire, and if work is easier, you can give a lot more without getting tired.

Danny: We empowered people to achieve their goals. Nobody wasted effort waiting on someone else to do their job first. Everybody was a partner and a problem solver. If they needed information, they went after it and didn't wait for the formal distribution of a report with the information.

Lucy: I've been thinking about the impact of money on this issue. Everybody knows we're going to get bonuses based on the project saving money and completing the project on time, but we on the project don't determine salaries. We have input, but the department heads make the money call. I think the bonuses mean more on the stakeholder issue, because people are part of the success, they share in the success. The little things give the same message: donuts and coffee on special mornings, celebrations, special lunches, all say we are interested in you, and we want you to know it.

Geoff: Trust. People on this project trusted the management team. We earned the trust and never abused it. We didn't blow smoke. We communicated our trust in the things we communicated and the way we communicated. People didn't have to spend useless energy watching their backs or playing politics. I know we had some politics going on, but the project as a whole was focused on goals, directed toward milestones, and was people-oriented.

Andy: We listened and showed respect. When Geoff says we were people-oriented, I ask myself how did the team know. We did show respect and listened to ideas as well as concerns. I will never forget the nodding of heads around the room when John told Ken to include families in celebrations whenever possible. I think that meant something to everybody, and in turn, people cared about the success of the project.

Danny: We squashed the NIH. The ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome will kill a company this size because the good ideas that can help increase performance are ignored because we didn't think of them. I remember John telling Andy to go to Houston and steal every good idea he could from the Houston office and then gave us one month to improve on their ideas. But then he took our new and improved idea and gave the credit to Houston. We got good ideas; people would improve them and feel ownership, and John got Houston to feel part of the success because we were using their ideas.



Lucy: I'm still thinking about recognition. Remember the Swim Celebration. During the entire two-hour celebration, not a manager on the project took the stage. The quality team set the goal, tracked the progress, arranged the celebration, and managed the entire effort without management's direct involvement. That's empowerment and I think people realized that the managers were there being supportive, but it was their success and they were getting the recognition. Sometimes people need for others to see and recognize their success for them to feel successful.

Geoff: Expectations. We set a tone and developed expectations at the beginning of the project that we required the best. I remember a letter I wrote to the client. John saw the letter and took a red pen and bled all over it. I was a little sloppy with that letter. The message was very clear, we do better work than that on this project. It was an expectation, not chastisement. If those expectations are not high, then where's the challenge. High but reachable expectations set the tone and when people respond, goals are achieved and projects are successful.

Lucy: I think another motivator was feedback. We let every team and person know how they were doing against goals, and when something slipped, we didn't look for blame, we developed a recovery plan. The message was that we meet all goals and exceed most.

Danny: Our quality teams impacted motivation in two ways: (1) The teams actually solved problems that impacted our goals and (2) the problem solvers helped make the solution work because it was their solution.

John stopped writing for a minute and sat down at the table. His hand was cramping from writing on the flip chart, but he was also thinking about something Ken had talked about not long ago. John shared with the team his thoughts about “official goals,” those goals that are declared by management and “operative goals,” the goals that are reinforced. “A project will always get in trouble when management's official goals are displaced with different operative goals, and still worse is when following the rules or adherence to policy becomes the goal.”

It was getting close to the time to quit and go home. It was hard to believe that people were now getting their work done, goals were being met, and making it home without the long hours that were the norm during the start of the project. John wrapped up the flip chart paper and headed to his office to draw up an outline. As always, he knew that the brain power of this team would produce more thoughts than John could ever cover in a divisional meeting. img


Russell W. Darnall has served as the quality facilitator on several large projects for Fluor Daniel. He began full-time as a member of the project team after two years with Fluor Daniel's Continuous Performance Improvement Resource Center, a global research and support center for Fluor Daniel's Total Quality effort.

Russ previously served on the management team of the Tennessee Prison Construction Project, a PMI Showcase Project in 1989. While in Nashville, he also taught construction management at Tennessee State University.

Prior to entering the engineering and construction profession, he spent nine year-s on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina as director of the Cherokee Children's Home.

Russ received his B.S. degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1972 and his master's of project management from Western Carolina University.

PMNETwork • August 1994



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