Project Management

Can overdelivery backfire? OR When going the extra mile gives you sore feet…

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

“Go the extra mile! Impress your client! Deliver more!” (yeah, I know how these sound, let’s not go there) Could all this actually backfire?

One of my first questions when I pick a new project is: “What are we required to deliver by contract? ”.  That’s because I believe in fairness and quality, not in free work. As a project manager, you need to understand the business model first: how the parties involved in the contract make their money.

If it’s a time and material contract, going the extra mile pays out 1:1 for the seller. Yet, whipping your employees into delivering more, via overtime, is very wrong. If you are working for a delivery organisation where the contract is owned by a different entity, that other entity doesn’t care that much that you risk losing your team / people aka employees. The word attrition, by definition, means “the process of reducing something’s strength or effectiveness through sustained attack or pressure” (according to Oxford Languages). Therefore, overtime should be used only when the situation requires it (contractual milestones at stake) and not for the sake of making more money or even worse, simply to impress someone. But, as history shows, there have always been people in charge, leaders, eager to impress the bigger boss and not giving a damn that they leave a ruin behind them – and that’s unacceptable.

The business world however is pretty cynical: by the time some people get upset that they got overworked, the contract is over. The whip holder (who usually leaves shortly after, be it a contracting organisation or a person) gets the laurels for a brilliant delivery that brought lots of money. Damage sustained by the company on the labour market is not quantified, nor the pressure under which the successor will have to deliver. Come on, we all have friends or acquaintances telling you: “if company X ever calls you, don’t even answer, they’ll work you to death cause they’re crazy ”. Yup.

Fixed price contracts are a game of tug o’ war between the buyer and seller or the client and the delivering entity. As you all know, contracts are negotiated by salespeople and it’s not always a win-win. Nonetheless, in such a contract, the client will try to get anything fit into that price: design, construction, no defects (meaning “fix it for free”), operational support, handover, transition, etc. Thus, the battle of the Change Requests begins.

Scope creep can easily be found in agile projects as well as in waterfall. The difference is in the subtlety used. In the ancient waterfall delivery model, it was straight forward: change requests. You were comparing the new requests with the initial specs and if you had a difference, that was it: change requests. I know that for some companies waterfall is not that ancient, but we shouldn’t pretend that a monocycle is a mountain bike. It is ancient. Really ancient.

In Scrum by comparison, it all sums up to the item (user story) description and the definition of done. The thing is… I’ve seen Product Owners and even third party BAs editing user stories silently, and the only way to catch it is for the dev team to pay attention and ring the alarm so that you can check the history of that item and as a Scrum Master, object to the change.

By absorbing changes and / or downtime freely, you are sending just one message: whatever happens, we can take the hit, we can do more. Well, if you can do more now, it means you can keep up the rhythm, doesn’t it? Why would the velocity decrease? Because all methodologies I’ve read forgot to mention one thing: people can get exhausted if they are overworked. When that happens, either the delivery slows down, or the quality drops.

That’s why management has to balance client expectations and team’s capacity. The safest way to avoid this is to pay attention to the contract you sign from the very beginning. Most contracts suffer from omission and assumption, the mother and father of all ****-ups. We should turn this into a motivational wallpaper and place it in every company: “A good contract keeps you safe”.

I encourage you to consider the message you’re sending when you overdeliver or go the extra mile. Saving the day, stepping up when it’s needed is one thing. Turning it into a habit means it’s the norm and you will be expected to stick to it. Your choice.

How do you feel about overdelivery? Let us know in a comment.

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