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Have you been on your own Death Star?

When you work a lot of hours, even favorite movies remind you of your job. That often happens with me. Recently I was watching those good old episodes of Star Wars and got frustrated with how Darth Vader treated his staff and wondered about the destiny of the Death Star.

Moff Jerjerrod: Lord Vader, this is an unexpected pleasure. We are honored by your presence…

Darth Vader: You may dispense with the pleasantries, Commander. I’m here to put you back on schedule.

Moff Jerjerrod: I assure you, Lord Vader. My men are working as fast as they can.

Darth Vader: Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them.

Moff Jerjerrod: I tell you that this station will be operational as planned.

Vader: The Emperor does not share your optimistic appraisal of the situation.

Moff Jerjerrod: But he asks the impossible! I need more men!

Vader: Then perhaps you can tell him when he arrives.

Moff Jerjerrod: The Emperor’s coming here?

Darth Vader: That is correct, Commander. And, he is most displeased with your apparent lack of progress.

Moff Jerjerrod: We shall double our efforts.

Darth Vader: I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.  

Does it sound familiar? Deadline is coming, management is getting anxious, team is working full strength and a soon-coming menace is at the doorstep.  

I have managed many software development projects for lots of clients. Here’s what I thought about:

  • What does the Death Star and Darth Vader remind me of? The Death Star and Darth Vader seem like some projects I have been on with technical challenges and a demanding management team. Of course not all clients were like “Darth Vader” and “Emperors” but sometimes it seemed like it.
  • Stressful situation for the team. Darth Vader easily “fires” his commanders which can cause even more disruption to getting the job done. They are giving 100% and it is never enough. So effectiveness level decrease inversely to stress rising.
  • No communication. It seems like the commander and Darth Vader are having their first communication in a long time which is like a ‘waterfall’ project where directions are given in the beginning and then the communications stops until the project is supposed to be complete.
  • Overpromising. The commander says “We shall double our efforts.“ Why does he say that? Is it even possible to do so at this stage? Obviously he would like to avoid punishment which is why he said it and why I have felt like saying it too. But what happens when the team can’t deliver on the promise?
  • Difficult to be a team when your top management seems like “the dark side of force”. Darth Vader doesn’t feel like he is part of the team. He doesn’t associate himself with the team even though they have one goal of building of the Death Star.
  • You never know when Jedis are coming. Adding to the list above, force majeure situations can appear anytime. It can be technical blockers or “bottlenecked” resources. Even with proper management it may be hard to handle these situations.

I have learned that these are not hopeless obstacles. They can be avoided in the first place or fixed when you find yourself on the Death Star. Here’s what I remember:

  • Agile: Bring Darth Vader to scrum meetings, help him to frequently associate and communicate with the team and see what blockers are present.
  • Be Transparent: Don’t promise something that is impossible and be up front about the limits of your team. They can’t double their efforts but we can use some value engineering e.g. maybe the Emperor can provide some better armor.
  • Deal WIth It: The situation can get worse so be prepared to deal with anything, even the Jedis coming.

So is there a chance to succeed when you find yourself on the Death Star? There is no guarantee but there are things you can do. It is never too late to shoot for the stars.

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