Oswald Letter

Don’t let one person’s lack of planning bring the whole team down

emergencyby Dan Oswald

Have you ever seen a sign that says something like “lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine” hanging in someone’s office or retail establishment?

If you think about it for a minute, it’s surprising how often an unplanned or unanticipated event for one person turns into an emergency for someone else. The other day—the day we were taking my youngest son to college for his freshman year—I damaged a rim on his truck. Suddenly, my accident became a desperate situation. We had to get his tire fixed before departing later in the day. My unplanned event became an emergency for the tire retailer. And they should have handed me that sign.

Now, you could argue that I didn’t intend to damage the rim. And you’d be right. And you could argue that it was plain ol’ bad luck that it happened just hours before we were leaving for college move-in day. And you’d be right again. But that still doesn’t change the fact that my misfortune shouldn’t have caused an emergency for the tire retailer. I was lucky they were willing and able to go the extra mile for me. (I’ll write about Discount Tires and the incredible culture they’ve built another time.) They ordered the rim from a local supplier, sent someone to pick it up immediately, and had the truck back on the road three hours later!

How often does someone in your office fail to plan appropriately and suddenly everyone else down the line is asked to treat the situation like an emergency? We talk all the time about working in teams. Individual producers are a thing of the past. The ability to work as a team is critical to most work processes. Yet all it takes is for one person to fail to plan, and the process begins to break down. The failure to plan causes a missed deadline for an early step in the process. The missed deadline causes the project to fall behind schedule. The late project causes other projects to be rescheduled. Now, with days before the final project is due, the last person in the process is asked to move heaven and earth to make sure it goes out on time.

And when it’s impossible to make up for all the lost time caused by that lack of planning, someone is going to have the gall to blame it on the poor guy at the end of the line—the one killing himself trying to make up for someone else’s failure to plan. It happens all the time.

I talked with a manager recently who said he had the answer. It seemed incredibly simple, and he swore that it works every time. His teams are paid based on their results. If projects run late or over budget, the team gets paid less. If they hit their goals and get things out the door, they stand to make more money. He swears that the peer pressure to perform is so great that he rarely has people who are chronically late with their deadlines.

And when a team does have a member who isn’t pulling his own weight, the team takes matters into its own hands. The manager told me that the teammates start to set more frequent milestones for the underperformer so they aren’t surprised when he doesn’t finish his work on schedule. As the team cranks up the scrutiny on the tardy teammate, one of two things happens—either the person gets his act together or he chooses to leave because he can’t meet the team’s standards. Could it really be that easy? The manager said he had never fired underperformers. They always left before he had to step in.

How teams work together and the impact one person’s lack of planning can have on the rest of the team are certainly things to keep an eye on as a leader. If you don’t monitor the entire process, you’ll likely get surprised at the end when a deadline is missed. And when that happens, it’s difficult to go back and reconstruct exactly what happened.

Often, teammates don’t want to point the finger at the guilty party. Instead, they think they’re being good teammates and showing loyalty by not singling out what (or who) is really the problem. You’re left trying to figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. And you’ll fail miserably if no one on the team will speak up about what’s broken. You’ll find it’s often the nicest people on your team who absorb the most punishment because they aren’t willing to call someone out.

Setting frequent milestones and monitoring them diligently are the best things you can do as a team leader. Make sure you know what everyone’s role is and when their contribution is due. That way, when things go wrong, you can see where the problem started. And if you determine there’s one person who habitually causes the team to miss its deadlines, then you can take the appropriate action. So often, we think the team isn’t performing well when really it’s just one person who isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. Replace that person, and suddenly the team is great.

One team member’s failure to plan doesn’t constitute an emergency for every other person on the team. If that’s happening on your team, you need to act now to save the team. Either the person gets with the program or he needs to go—for the good of the team.

4 thoughts on “Don’t let one person’s lack of planning bring the whole team down”

  1. Appreciate the wonderful solution. Question: What do you do if the “Team Leader” fails to take action?

  2. A.M. – If you have a “Team Leader” who fails to take action it’s you likely have the wrong person in the role. In order to lead a team a person needs to be able to set the expectations, monitor the processes, and address any issues that arise when an individual team member is not performing to expectations. If the “Team Leader” isn’t addressing those issues with individual team members then he cannot effectively fulfill the responsibilities of his position without adjusting his performance. His shortcomings need to be addressed with him and a corrective action plan needs to be put into place in order to provide him the opportunity to rectify the situation. If he cannot then you probably have the wrong person in the leadership position.

  3. Love the concept what do you use in place of money, when its a local government and the salaries are set in stone.

  4. Great question, Donna. I think there are other ways to get to the same outcome. Giving the highest performing teams the choice of projects or assignments might work. For instance, you could start with team evaluations. You would give the entire group an overall grade based on the team’s performance on their most recent project. Then have the individual members grade the contributions of their teammates to the project. I’ve seen a “total point” system work in these situations where each team member was allowed a certain number of points to be allocated across all their teammates. Let me explain that. Let’s say that you have a 6-member team. Each member evaluates their 5 teammates on a 0-5 scale but is allowed a maximum of just 20 points. This prevents them from giving everyone a top ranking. Of course, they can still give everyone a 4 ranking and not offend anyone but it will be obvious who is taking this approach. If the team members approach this honestly you’ll be able to quickly see who is not pulling his or her own wait and address the issue. And you can communicate to the team that in order to increase the team’s overall evaluation scores on their projects they must increase each individual’s performance. If the team wants their choice of projects they will need to honestly assess the under performers who are bringing down their team scores. That’s just one thought.

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