How should one pointy-haired boss deal with his own PHB?
October 12, 2006 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I got dumped with a project where I am out of my depth and area of expertise, and it won't go away.

My boss (CEO) assumes that it will take no more than a day to complete, and considers it very high priority. Initially, I agreed with his estimates -- obviously I have PHB tendencies. After all, it looked easy enough!

He constantly assigns me other (higher priority) projects which crowd the monster project out, which have meant that there is never any uninterrupted block of time to allocate to this project.

And, each time I give the monster any time, it becomes more and more clear that it is probably a ten day task for me. Or it might be two. Who knows? Because it's so far outside my comfort zone, I have no idea how to estimate it, and while doing the task, my productivity is extremely low. The result is that other projects have been on time and well executed, but this one is very behind and risks being low quality.

The original plan was to spend $100k on outsourcing this project, and the current approach was an attempt by PHB to reduce it to a quarter of the cost.

Each time he asks, "Will it be done by end of today?" my best faith answer up until now has been, "Most likely". But now it's blindingly obvious this is not so.

It would be job-terminating folly to admit to my boss now that the reality will require ten more days (maybe). Both of us want it off my plate. PHB wants me to complete it despite my unease with the project. Hence, giving it to someone more qualified is also not an option, and would be job-terminating to request.

I'm not defending my performance on this task -- except to say that I was the wrong person to give it to, and shouldn't have accepted it. Except there was no choice in the matter.

What to do, apart from get another job?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Two choices: one - get someone else to help you on the side. Take them to lunch and basically beg them to help. Technically it is still on your plate, but you are now able to make progress.

Secondly, tomorrow is Friday. If you can buy yourself one more day, you get the weekend. If not, you have roughly 19 hours before 5pm tomorrow chop the job up in to 1 hour pieces, and do at least a 75% decent job. This way, come 5pm tomorrow you will be done (i.e. you'll have somethign to show him), and then you can ask if so and so can help you tweak it.

And why not tell us what kind of project it is and maybe we can help?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2006

Wait, your boss wanted to outsouce Project X for $100K, and now wants to spend only 25K on it, and you're expected to do it in one day?

"It would be job-terminating folly to admit to my boss now that the reality will require ten more days (maybe). Both of us want it off my plate. PHB wants me to complete it despite my unease with the project. Hence, giving it to someone more qualified is also not an option, and would be job-terminating to request."

So PHB wants you to do Project X, even if that ensures Project X isn't completed; it's as much some weird "initiation" for you as a business priority?

Look, you've got to talk to your boss -- perhaps the test is to see how you handle an impossible assignment, and how soon you admit to yourself and others it's impossible.
posted by orthogonality at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2006

I meant, do a 75% decent job on each hour chunk, but when the hour is up, move to the next chunk. Don't bog down, and don' procrastinate. The name of the game is forward progress. Turn is something that is a little crappy tomorrow afternoon, and Boss think that you finished it, but he's not lookuing at it closely until Monday, which gives you a cahnce to work all weekend, and come in monday morning and say "Hey, I was thinking about the project and I came up with some refinements. Review this, and ignore what I gave you on Friday."

This is not school. You don't have to get an A+. Given your situation, shoot for a B- by tomorraw and work over the weekend.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:17 PM on October 12, 2006

Something doesn't smell right here... your boss has a job that initially was supposed to be $100K in outsourcing but now is only a 1 day job, for $25K? Assuming an 8 hour work day, that's $3125/hour. I could do some serious superhuman tasks for that.

If it's in my field of expertise, I'll do it for $15K, assuming I can do it in 1 day. A bargain!
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:26 PM on October 12, 2006

It's a shame you didn't give us any idea of what industry you work in- somebody here could probably provide some practical help for the project.

I agree with those who say you should work your ass off this weekend to see how much you can complete. I also agree that you have to talk to your boss. I think you should do those things, in that order.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:31 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

It seems like succesfully completing this task in a short time would make it likely that you would be the go-to person for future tasks of a similar sort. Just something to think about.
posted by advil at 7:46 PM on October 12, 2006

Ooo, advil, that is SO true!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:50 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm a manager, and I'd much rather hear about a problem like this while there's still time for me to help problem-solve than when it's an emergency with no solution in sight and a deadline looming. Talk to your boss. If nothing else, get him to agree to stop giving you new projects until the monster project is finished.
posted by chippie at 8:10 PM on October 12, 2006

I could be wrong (and it's too bad that the OP is anon), but I bet that the project costs aren't completely based on labor costs and that there's a large fixed cost portion of the project.

It's probably something like setting up a 24k server on a network and configure it to do X, Y, and Z.

My suggestion, come clean with the PHB and let them know that the project is out of your expertise. Make them choose what your priorities should be:

A. Dive into the nebulous project and get a better idea of what it will actually take to complete, with the consequence of neglecting your other work, or...

2. Keep all your other projects below, and take your time working on the nebulous project.

Keeping this kind of thing in the dark is only going to cause frustration and pain for everyone. If you work at a company where the truth isn't accepted and valued, hopefully you work in a field that it's easy to find a new job.
posted by freshgroundpepper at 8:10 PM on October 12, 2006

He constantly assigns me other (higher priority) projects which crowd the monster project out, which have meant that there is never any uninterrupted block of time to allocate to this project.

When the master demands the servant begin a new task, and the servant is still busy about the previous task, the servant replies: Boss, is this new task more important than project X? I can start on it right away, but it will make project X late.

This is called "managing upwards."

Now for the really cynical part. He says it's really important, but keeps assigning you new stuff, and hasn't thus far complained of its lateness. My conclusion is that despite what he says, it isn't really that important. If it was, you'd be fired already. Rather, you work for the kind of wanker who thinks they will get more out of you by saying everything is extremely urgent. The correct counter is to stress just how hard you are working, but be as late in delivery as you need to be. He doesn't really want it done tomorrow - he just wants to know that you're going as hard as you can.

In other words, if he's just playing a game of ritual posturing, don't take it seriously, and assume the appropriate counter-ritual posture.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:14 PM on October 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

I see a couple of solutions:

Short-term: Develop easy extras that will please the boss, making it value-added. "It'll take more time, but you'll get [extras]". Then the boss can toot his horn about it to whoever is wanting this work.

Long-term: I smell a pay raise. If they've got $100K to throw at this stuff, surely they'll consider paying a lot less for something developed inhouse that might take more time. Plus they could assign another person to help. This is how some departments (and department heads) get started. The expertise issue may become manageable after a bit of spinup time.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:16 PM on October 12, 2006

giving it to someone more qualified is also not an option, and would be job-terminating to request.

Push it out the door this weekend and brush up on your resume.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:21 PM on October 12, 2006

Start with the parts that you understand least. Do some proof-of-concept work on those parts; you don't have to solve the whole problem, just get to the point where you understand what really needs to be done. This will quickly get you to the point where you can produce a reliable estimate for the 'hard parts'. Whatever is left after that should be the easy stuff, which you shouldn't have any problem estimating with some degree of accuracy.

With this approach you won't (at least you shouldn't) get 5 days into the project only to realize that you still don't know how long it's going to take to finish.
posted by jknecht at 8:25 PM on October 12, 2006

anonymous, if you are able to provide a little more detail without violating privacy agreements, I'd be willing to post your further explanation while you maintain your anonymity.

Email in profile, if you wish. I'll be awake for 3 more hours.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:18 PM on October 12, 2006

Anon says:
I am afraid that joe's spleen has it closest.

There are some PHB characteristics that this highlights:
a) all subordinates must be loaded to exactly breaking point (or they're slacking off);
b) all tasks are important (we don't pay people to do unimportant stuff);
c) all tasks are urgent (important = urgent);
d) no task once assigned may ever, ever go away, even if it becomes unimportant / stale, etc. (or it wasn't important in the first place)

After reading all the advice, and digesting for a few hourse, this is mostly about posturing. And therefore about counter-posturing.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:15 PM on October 12, 2006

If this has anything to do w/IT admin and or programming I say be brutally honest and get on with it. You will at the very least be in a better mental state in order to tackle the project. At best you will get along with and respect each other more.

At worst you're fired and you never make the same mistake again.
posted by prodevel at 12:40 AM on October 13, 2006

Wow. Do you work for a small software developer on the north side of Indianapolis? I ask because I used to work there and this is exactly the sort of management "style" practiced by the CEO. Always demanding "important" job-x be completed tomorrow, and then pile on several new "mission critical" jobs immediately afterward, pushing job-x to the bottom of the pile.

In the end, it was mostly posturing. Squeezing twice as much work from half the number of staff actually needed to get things done, in order to present glowing productivity numbers to the board. Deadlines were continually missed and, often, the original job-x was forgotten under the pile of even newer jobs.

Basically, whatever captured his attention on any particular day became the high-priority job.

Just do the work as best you can. If anyone bitches about a missed deadline, simply point to the pile of new priority work (a whiteboard charting all this is really handy)

Oh, and get your resumé out there. It doesn't get any better with these guys.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:18 AM on October 13, 2006

Anon says:
The original project was $100 k approx for an outside consultancy to come up with a new design for an application. We decided to hire a consultant for a few weeks at about $20 k instead, over my objections. When the consultant left, he had left all the design mockups in one big pile along with all the old ones in a prototyping tool, all in one prototype. This meant I had to go through and extract all the final ideas, and delete all the old ideas, while leaving the prototype working. Kind of like looking for the few lego pieces you need, in a big pile of lego pieces. Bear in mind that I have never used this prototyping tool before. Once upon a time, I was technical, but not anymore (I am a neo-PHB now! :) )

I pulled an all-nighter on Thu night. I had a much better idea of what's left by Fri am. Met with PHB on Fri pm. Meeting went something like this:

Me: I need to tell you about project X. It's going to take at least two more days without interruptions.

PHB: {Raised eyebrows.} Two whole days? That's a lot.

Me: Not considering what's involved.

PHB: Well, OK, but it needs to be done today. But in the meantime, I want you to take care of new projects A and B by the end of today. They are higher priority.

So I did projects A and B. At least I still have my job. But of course, project X is still in progress. At this rate, it will be forever...

Posturing is the closest thing that fits. But I am not sure it is deliberate.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:16 PM on October 15, 2006

Thanks for the follow-up, anon, and thanks for posting it, Kickstart70.

I feel very vindicated by that exchange.

Understand that ritual postures are not necessarily conscious manoeuvres. People who regularly practice rituals believe they work. No doubt your boss sincerely believes this is what he has to do to get the best out of you. If you call him on the contradiction between completing X today while making time for the more important A and B, he will get angry and upset, and if you press him, you really will get fired.

Still, your boss' behaviour is abusive and I would leave as soon as I could establish I wasn't jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Personally, this kind of shit is one of the reasons why I'm a contractor.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:15 AM on October 16, 2006

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