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Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!
By Tom Dennis – President, Effective Engineering
Have you ever heard
of “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”? At one point in my
career I got involved with a great group of people on a number of projects.
While the projects were exciting and challenging, we recognized they had
many potential obstacles that made achieving our goals of highly desired
features, functionality, and timely delivery optimistic, to say the least.
People would ask us whether we felt we would be able to reach our aggressive
goals, and our response would often be, “Sure, when pigs fly!”
But we didn’t really mean that. We felt, cockily, that we could achieve our
goals despite the obstacles. In fact, to “prove” it (or, more
accurately, to further demonstrate our cockiness) we even adopted a mascot
for our department, the aforementioned “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”.
One member of our group (actually the wife of one of the members of
our group) found a large stuffed pig and sewed large fluffy wings on it, and
it was hung from the drop ceiling in my office (I was the department head at
the time) to illustrate that we could make pigs fly! Cocky indeed!
With hard work and high spirits we attempted to do everything we believed we
could to achieve the stretch goals we had set for ourselves, and we
succeeded more often than not. This was an approach and outlook that I have
tried to foster throughout my career, and I recommend it highly, with
caveats to be described below. It can make work fun, challenging,
demanding, and exciting, and encourage people to eagerly look forward to
going to work and doing great things.
So what does it take to build an environment where people love what they’re
doing and achieve great things? How can you foster such an environment?
First, let’s talk about what won’t work.
► Projects that are simple to achieve and actually hard to mess up won’t do
it. Where’s the challenge in doing something easy? Anyone can do that!
► Projects that are impossible to achieve and that will with high certainty
fail won’t do it either (see
eN-060608 – Unrealistic Expectations and
eN-070503 – Sunny Day Scenarios). If you know you have no
chance of success, you may go through some of the motions, but your heart
won’t be in it and you and all of your team members will do what you’re told
as part of a “death march”. The best people will be the first to
leave and others will soon follow. The project will fail.
► Projects that are being micromanaged from above with constant intervention
and daily (or even hourly) reporting and constant nitpicking won’t do it
either. Who wants to live under a microscope with others looking for the
most minute issues or infractions? People want to fly, not to be held down!
► Projects that receive virtually no management or interest from those in
charge won’t do it either. If no one shows any interest that they want a
project to succeed, it probably won’t, despite the concerted efforts of the
people involved. People want their work to matter, and can’t get excited if
You can describe other circumstances you’ve seen that won’t work. There are
many situations that won’t enable the right kind of environment, but what
Let’s talk about some of the elements that must be present, and how they can
come together to create the magic that can make pigs fly.
► There must be good people who like each other and who can work well
together. Perfect harmony isn’t essential, but mutual respect is. In fact,
some cognitive dissonance (e.g. heated “discussions”) helps to ensure
truly informed judgments are being made and can prevent “group think”
that could lead to bad decision making. The team should also bring together
all of the disciplines and levels of expertise necessary to be thorough and
complete in architecture, design, and execution (see
eN-030327 – Do Jobs Right – Assign the Right People!). There
should be plentiful opportunities for the team to work together
interactively and cooperatively such that the results of the collaborative
efforts are far more that the sums of the individual efforts. Synergy such
as this makes working together genuinely compelling and rewarding.
► Active oversight by managers (be they group managers, technical managers,
project managers, etc.) who are truly part of the team is also critical.
These must be people who fully believe in the people and the project and who
are there to help the people and the project succeed (see
eN-031106 – Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Engineers, and
eN-040122). They can do this by getting problems out of the
team’s way so the team can move forward with minimal interruption and
eN-030313 – Move the Rocks and People Travel Faster). Poor
management (even one person) can kill the magic and doom a project all too
eN-040205 – Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison The Well,
eN-040429; see also
eN-060504 – Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!).
► The project must be a compelling one that the team must care about, and
that the market demands. The project goals must be aggressive but
achievable. A project that is a piece of cake or one that is clearly
impossible won’t cut it, but one that is difficult yet compelling will.
Stretch goals can be motivating and desirable. People want the opportunity
to reach for greatness, to excel, and to achieve against the odds (but they
don’t want to be duped into accepting impossible odds). Slaying the dragon
is good. Tilting against windmills is not.
► There should be recognition of the hard work, effort, and success that
people on the team are doing and have achieved. Such recognition and praise
should be public, for individuals and some or all of the team. This need
not be monetary (although that can also be good!); often a hearty pat on the
back or public praise in front of a larger audience can go a long way.
Lunches for reaching critical milestones can also show recognition and
provide another opportunity for team building. Public praise is essential,
but any criticism of an individual or group should be done in private and
should offer concrete ways to address and correct the causes for criticism.
You want to build people up and not tear them down. When pigs are flying
there is generally plenty of praise to go around.
When the elements come together in the right way, the result is nothing
short of exhilarating! The work is fun, it’s hard, it’s exhausting, it’s
exciting, it’s demanding, it’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s … well, you
name it! When it’s not right you quickly know it, but when it is, revel in
the situation, build upon it, and enjoy it while it lasts. Encourage it and
foster it. Go out and buy your own stuffed pig and sew fluffy wings on it
and call it “Pigasus the famous flying pig!”, and hang it in
the right place for all to see. You and your team have found the ways to
make Pigasus fly when all around you naysayer’s try to tell you that’s
impossible! It’s not and you’ve proved it!
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