Have you ever faced a mound of tasks at the end of a project? You know the ones—those activities everyone thought they’d have plenty of time to finish but now it’s all piled up and no one is sure they can get through everything in time? It’s an all-too-common situation that teams think is unavoidable, but it’s not. Our project management consultants are often engaged to resolve similar issues, and while it may be difficult for project teams to step back and assess where their practices have gone wrong, there are always warning signs that were missed.
The accumulation of tasks late in the project is a red flag that indicates your team’s initiative could be the path to failure.
Frustration is a powerful emotion, and it can prevent your team from finishing strong when you need it most. As the project’s target completion date looms, team members will feel the pressure to pull all-nighters and delay other important activities so they can churn through an unreasonable workload as quickly as possible. But if the pile of tasks is too high, or if other important activities get dropped because the project is spiraling out of control, there could be unresolved frustration, anxiety, and stress that hinder performance down the road.
Facing a seemingly insurmountable mountain of tasks can create almost overwhelming levels of fear. Some of your team members might worry they could lose their jobs. Others will be concerned about damage to their professional reputations. Missed deadlines—particularly if there’s a litany of them—and subpar work can harm team members’ prospects for promotion and could even put the brakes on the possibility of lateral moves. If internal workers feel they’re bearing the brunt of someone else’s mistakes, it could mean an eventual exodus from the team of both skill and experience. For groups that work alongside client organizations or business partners, consistently missing deadlines will likely work against you in terms of landing new contracts or being invited to participate in future efforts.
Team members who harbor resentment against each other are unlikely to work as well together as they otherwise could. Poor project management, ineffective planning, off-kilter resource management, recurring oversights, and other errors are almost certain to have serious negative effects on team dynamics. Any simmering ill will is likely to boil over if some group members feel they’re expected to pick up the slack or otherwise resolve the consequences of others’ unfinished work.
People begin to shut down, tune out guidance and advice, and even ignore directives when they’re frantic about trying to pull a badly damaged project back together at the very end. Nothing good comes from work that’s rushed. The results are often low-quality outcomes, mistakes, tasks that never get done, and a general lack of awareness about what really happened. Further compounding the problem is that people in this frazzled state are also less likely to maintain good documentation and apply sound critical thinking skills, making it even more difficult to conduct an effective post-mortem later to find and fix the early causes of the problem.
If your group’s tendency to run up against last-minute task tsunamis isn’t addressed, you may encounter serious problems with low morale. Continuous improvement efforts probably won’t pay off as expected, upskilling and career development plans could stall and leave the team without much-needed resources, and repeated project failures will only prompt people to pull back from doing their best work. Most project professionals are naturally self-motivated, and once members of the group start losing that trait, your morale problem could spread to other team members.