Caffeine, Late Nights and Failing Projects

junk foodIf I had a dollar for every late night I’ve spent working on a project over the last thirty years I could probably take a very nice trip to Hawaii or some other tropical paradise for a week or two. I can’t say I particularly enjoy burning the late night oil, but sometimes it just can’t be avoided.

Because projects sometimes demand those types of efforts, project teams grudgingly accept them as a part of the job.That being said, reliance on heroic efforts to get projects finished successfully is not only a big red flag indicating a broken system, it’s a recipe for disaster.

The problem with too many late nights and caffeine is more than just a team member’s health, although that should be a concern. Too much junk food, too much caffeine and too little sleep is bad for health. Period.

What’s worse in my opinion, is the damage it does to what fundamentally makes a good team member: his or her ability to recognize and creatively solve problems. Of course, everyone is different, and their tolerance for successive late nights varies. For example, when I was younger I could go a day or two without sleep if I was working on a critical project. Today, I need my “beauty sleep” or I am worthless the next day. Which is true in one degree or another for everyone. Our ability to process information, evaluate circumstances and solve problems eventually reaches a point where it starts to diminish and eventually is used up. I’ve observed that to be true whether or not you have the personal stamina of Hercules.

So what do you do about it?

First, you have to take capacity planning seriously. If your organization doesn’t, you will never solve this problem and might as well face the fact that your personal life is over. Capacity planning is more than pushing names around a resource grid. It requires a realistic look at the people on your team, what they are capable of accomplishing in an average work day and planning around that. (Planning for 12-hour days and working through weekends isn’t good capacity planning.)

If you’re not sure, look to your team members for that information. In my experience, most team members underestimate what any particular task will take at first, but over time get better at accurately estimating how long it takes to get things done. And, done in a group situation (like a Sprint planning meeting or other similar venue), the group won’t typically let a “slacker” pad his or her estimates. I’ve seen the team dynamic be very efficient at keeping everyone honest.

Conduct a project post mortem at the end of every project. Make sure you are in tune to what’s going on with your project team. It’s not always easy, but it’s critical to look at our successes and failures if we want to increase the odds of success. I’ve worked with teams where the challenges faced in the previous projects were posted so everyone was mindful of what they were, and could work to mitigate them in what they were doing every day. Instead of dealing with them at two or three in the morning the week before the project is due.

Whether or not you are Agile, borrow from Scrum and conduct a daily stand-up meeting. Standing keeps the meetings short and daily keeps everyone focused on what they are supposed to be doing (hopefully avoiding late nights down the road). When team members are reporting on progress daily, it also gives project leaders the opportunity to recognize accomplishments, collaborate with the team and push away from the computer for at least 15 or so minutes every day.

As powerful as he was, even the great Hercules eventually fell. Remember, if you’re not careful, caffeine and late nights spell failed projects.

Please share what you do to keep projects from turning into all night death marches.

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