Are people on the project waving or drowning?

Are people on the project waving or drowning?

Sometimes it’s those who don’t ask for help, who need it most #HoskWisdom

The difference between someone in water waving and drowning is small, but the difference could lead to life and death. How many times do you see people and teams complaining, but are they waving or drowning?

Conflicting teams

IT projects are stressful, delivered to tight deadlines. Teams need to get their work done, but depend on other teams to complete the project. Teams need to focus on their own work to ensure it’s done correctly, on time and to a high level. The dilemma to individual teams is if the other teams don’t finish their work, the complete solution won’t work. You can’t finish creating a human and have the legs and arms finished but no head and eyes.

  • Your team needs to complete work
  • You need to help other teams with information and shared design
  • Obligation to the project to make sure all teams are working effectively

Waving not drowning

Complaining is a popular pastime on projects, individuals can create noise and distract others. The personal objectives of individuals can distort messaging and priorities


  • An individual or team can exaggerate their performance and contribution
  • A successful team can quietly get their work done (not
  • personal conflicts can lead to individuals complaining about other teams

Drowning not waving

People and teams who are drowning don’t always ask for help, they try to battle on, hoping things will turn around. In some situations those who are in a position of responsibility don’t want to admit they made a mistake, have a relationship with an individual involved and don’t want to make the change.

The simple choice is to stick with the status quo and not change because changes need to justification and if it goes wrong there will be criticism. You are less likely to be criticised for sticking with the current plan, which still might work.

The original plan might be created by someone else, which gives less incentive to change the plan and take responsibility.

To admit you are drowning takes courage because you need to make yourself vulnerable and ask for help. It easier for others to notice a team/individual needs help but there needs to be incentives to want to improve.

It’s difficult for leaders to understand what is working and what isn’t because of the lack of clarity in reporting and feedback. There are two truths that can come to mind

* You can’t lead from an office

* You can fool people on the front line that things are going well

You need to get out and talk to people, find the pain points from the people doing their jobs and not just listen to the managers, plan and metrics being measured. The tendency will be for people to not publicise bad news or hide it but if you want to improve a project you to fix the parts not working as soon as possible.

Step back

There are always more tasks to do on a project, another report to write, meetings to attend. The constant motion stops you taking time to reflect, step back and see the bigger picture. A project is a complex system with lots of separate and dependent parts. Most of the time you deal with the symptoms of problems and not the root cause.

Peter Senge’s first law of The Fifth Discipline is “today’s problems were created by yesterdays solutions”, the second-order effects of changes are not always clear but can cause problems later on or in other places.

To assess your own performance you need to create some time to think, look at the project as a complex system and see where the problems are and assess your performance and contribution to these problems.

questions like these help

  • What do I need right now?
  • What would really help me?
  • What are my priorities?
  • What am I doing, that someone else should do or can do?

People problems don’t resolve themselves and need to be actively resolved, unless you are close it’s difficult to tell if the person is waving or drowning.

This post came from listening to the new Future Islands album and then finding this poem written by Steve Smith called Not Waving but Drowning, one paragraph is below

Not Waving but Drowning BY STEVIE SMITH

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


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