“Whatever It Takes”

My eyebrows are knitted every time when I hear a manager telling the team “we will do whatever it takes” (e.g. to meet the project deadline).

When someone says “whatever it takes”, it’s likely s/he has little clue of what exactly it takes, although for most of the time it is a figurative phrase. The U.S. President may say “we will do whatever it takes to win the war against the terrorism”. That’s OK because indeed no one knew what would happen in the war. The President merely uses that phrase to express his conviction. But when it comes to meeting an approaching project deadline, there is no need for the manager to express his conviction to the team, since that’s not the best way to mobilize the team, and there should be no unknown in what it exactly takes: the problem is simply that there are more remaining work than the time left. Assuming the time left won’t change and the team is not becoming more productive over night, what it takes to meet the deadline is to 1) decide how much work needs to be cut and what work to cut, then 2) cut them and manage with the consequences. It’s not going to be easy, for sure. But that’s the manager’s job. 

When the manager says “we will do whatever it takes”, it passes a negative micro message to the team. It reminds me about those stressed homes. Those home owners vowed “I will do whatever it takes to keep my home”. We all know what happened to them: most of them eventually still lost their home. The need for a manager to say “do whatever it takes” indicates that things are already in a very bad situation. “We will do whatever it takes” gives the team a dismal picture, rather than seeing the hope.

When a manager says “we will do whatever it takes”, s/he has lost the cool. The team can figure that the manager is in panic mode. S/he is in desperate. How can a country keep calm and carry on when her prime minister has lost the cool? How can a team keep calm and carry on when the manager has lost the cool? If a team has lost the calm, how can they remain productive and effective? If a team is unable to remain productive and effective, how can it save an already-late project?  

When a manager says “we will do whatever it takes”, s/he is willing to sacrifice the team’s long term future. It’s like a home owner who is withdrawing from the 401K account to keep up with monthly mortgage. Most financial advisors will advise against such way. They will suggest filing bankruptcy and keep 401K intact. A manager who says “do whatever it takes” is willing to quench a thirst with poison. S/he will have no hesitation to burn the team out if that may increase the chance to get the project done in time. That’s scary

My advice? If you are a manager, never say “we will do whatever it takes”. If you are in a team where such “we will do whatever it takes” moment has happened more than once, you may want to think about whether that’s a good place to stay, because the team seems unable to learn from it’s own mistakes.

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