Uncover the circumstantial evidence

10.12.12 Thumbnail FactsThere are excellent companies that handle swings in client work and still turn out high quality results. Whenever someone attributes any type result (especially a bad result) to “circumstances” you can be sure they’re in denial. Those excellent companies face “circumstances,” too — they just handle them differently, says leadership expert Tom Cox.

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10.12.12 Blog FactsDave was in a bind. His top architects were all idle because his drafters were behind on their work.  Clients were going to get their plans late.

Dave explained that his drafting department was a little short handed, and he needed to do some hiring.  We both knew hiring new people and bringing them up to speed to be productive, would take at least 90 days.

So, what does the company do in the mean time? Just sigh and accept lateness?  I asked Dave what was causing this backup, exactly.

“Circumstances,” he said, “Too much client work, and a shortage of people in the drafting department.”  Simple, right?


There are excellent companies that handle spikes and swings in client work, and turn out high quality work quickly and reliably.  Whenever someone attributes any sort of result (especially a bad result) to “circumstances” you can be sure they’re in denial.

Those excellent companies face “circumstances,” too — they just handle them differently.

Here is how you can rise above circumstances and achieve reliable and excellent results.

I asked Dave if this circumstance had happened before.  What caused this sort of back-up in drafting? Could it be predicted?

Well, yes, it had happened before.

So, what sorts of things cause these backups?

We found three basic causes.

1. Some of the architects were afraid to say “no” to client requests for last-minute changes.

2. Others wouldn’t push clients hard enough to get key decisions made on time, which caused delays — then they wouldn’t tell the client “your slow decision making is delaying the project.” So the clients were expecting their plans to arrive on the original timeline despite not hitting milestones.

3. In other cases, other architects would get their own work done, but not give it to the drafters until the last minute.

Dave and I spoke to Ken, the head of drafting.  What could he do, if he knew in advance that there was going to be a large amount of work coming that would all need fast turnaround?

Ideally, Ken said, with 1-2 weeks’ notice he could line up some temporary help.  The key thing, said Ken, is to keep the same drafter on each project — trying to get 4-5 drafters to work simultaneously on a late project, or adding even a second drafter to help a first when a project is already late, just makes it later — you create coordination problems.

Ken’s experience is almost universal.  Among members of the Project Management Institute there’s a saying, “adding people to a late project, makes it later.”

But Ken didn’t think he could ask for things to be different.  He thought he was supposed to muddle through, push people at crunch time, and have high turnover.

I pushed back on Dave.  ”How do you want Ken to handle this in future?”

Dave wanted Ken to hold the architects accountable, and to take initiative to hire temporary help when he needed to, while sticking to a budget.  Ken wasn’t doing any of those things.

I then asked Dave the tough question: “How are you contributing to Ken’s behavior?”


On reflection, Dave realized he had always done one of these things — defended the architects (so Ken was unsupported when trying to hold them accountable), or taken the problem away from Ken (teaching him to be passive), or told Ken to “suck it up” — Dave had never actually authorized Ken to hire temporary help and had never given him a budget.

Our fix involved these elements:

Track projects more closely earlier, to predict drafting demand

Hold architects accountable to say “no,” to push clients to make decisions on time — or tell them their project was delayed, and to turn in their work as soon as it was done.

We accomplished this by training them to say “no” and to push clients, and we made each architect accountable for the profitability of his projects — so delays that cost the firm money or drove up drafting costs, would show up in their personal performance.

Anybody who feels like they are a “victim of circumstances” would benefit from the same analysis Dave did — look at the patterns that predict the circumstances, and look honestly for how your own behavior has contributed to those circumstances.

As the authors of the book “How Did That Happen?” put it, the real question every leader should ask themselves is, “How did I let that happen?”

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to [email protected].