Pressure as a Management Tool

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One of my favorite TV shows is AMC’s Sunday Morning Shootout. It is a show about the movie business that delves deep inside in a way that is not gossipy, but explores what makes the business tick. Hosted by two veterans, there is no gloss, just meat. I love it.

Stephen Spielberg was on recently, talking about the start of his career and the amazing filmography he has developed over the years. One of the subjects was the role of “pressure” in the development of movies. He talked about the making of Jaws that was budgetted for $3.5m and 50 days of shooting. Compare that with today’s $200m movies with schedules that last the better part of a year. He told of being called reckless for coming in at $10m and 120 days. But it was a hit, and that started the blockbuster era. But that’s not really the issue I want to examine.

Stephen Spielberg

Spielberg said that the “best thing that ever happened to me was doing five years of episodic television.” He feels that directors who come out of that world, where you have to develop and shoot a complete story in a matter of days, are far better off that those who come out of the world of MTV or commercials. Those people, he feels, become drunk with the freedom of the longer shooting schedule of movies, and get completely out of control. He summarized by saying:

Pressure is the greatest thing, I think, to give us directors some direction in how to economize our storytelling, and to end up with as little as possible on the cutting room floor.

From my experience in the world of the software business, where deadlines are commonplace, and often absurd, I feel that Stephen is right — to a point. Well thought out, crisp deadlines that force a team into a focused economy mode, are excellent. They help to get everyone on the mission of eliminating noise, and focus, focus, focus. Good stuff. But arbitrary deadlines, and especially ones that no one believes are set for a legitimate reason, are worse than no deadline at all.

I’ve seen teams perform miracles in the weeks and days before the deadline.

I’ve seen teams that have deadlines that are real and meaningful (such as an immovable conference date) that seem to perform miracles in the weeks and days before the deadline. Under these circumstances, I’ve seen groups that are able to reject random inputs, clarify their goals, and truly bond as a team, relying on each other in ways that seemed otherwise impossible. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been done under these kind of schedules.

On the other hand, I’ve seen many managers who witness this kind of reaction, and attempt to artificially create this level of intensity. They set arbitrary dates, dates that are often absurdly ambitious, and threaten doom if the date is not met. They don’t bother to explain the significance of the date (if there is one) but expect the team to meet it, apparently out of fear of consequences alone.

Worse yet, they will later back off on the date, or even let the dates pass without notice, almost with a “just kidding” kind of attitude. This is terrible for the team. The ones who actually worked themselves to death will be filled with resentment, and the wiser ones who detected the ruse will get more cynical yet. In all, nothing good comes of this, and the team is demoralized.

The beatings continue until morale improves

The worst managers get furious at this behavior, can’t believe the team simply ignored their mandate, and get more bellicose and belligerent. This begets a death spiral, the team gets more downtrodden, the manager gets more upset at the team morale… and as the saying goes: the beatings continue until morale improves.

But when used effectively, budget restrictions and meaningful deadlines can do marvelous things to enhance team building. Some of the best teams in existence were forged from the crucible of seemingly impossible deadlines. Just don’t fake it, and expect it to work.