David worked as an experienced instructional designer for a company that developed computer-based courseware and simulations for defence companies. Computer-based training is training that is delivered on a computer. For example, it might help a fighter pilot learn about the controls in the cockpit.
He joined one project that involved designing and producing computer-based training for the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). The project needed to produce results to a defined schedule and involved working with other professionals to meet project milestones.
Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.
As part of the project, David was responsible for a team of instructional designers. Instructional designers specify how the objectives for the training should be achieved. They create storyboards. A good analogy is an architect that produces drawings for the design of a new house that will satisfy the client’s requirements.
The RAF training project had been under bid, which meant that the project team would need to find innovative ways to be as productive as possible to avoid making a loss. Delivering the desktop training material would mean working to a design brief that accounted for the budget related to the project which was not, in David’s eyes, enough to deliver a product of the quality he felt was needed.
David had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). He wanted to produce the highest quality of design for his computer-based training, and would worry if he thought that his design was not the best it could be. He was prone to perfectionism, as is common in people with AS and hated making any mistakes. Consequently, he tended to work to his agenda which was defined by his preferred mode of operating.
His boss, Michael, however got increasingly frustrated, because he was not keeping to plan, and worse, he was demanding the same high “quality” output from his team who were missing their milestones. David found it hard to praise his team, because he didn’t see the need for this. The focus of his attention was always on the areas of team members’ work that fell short of his expectation and how this should be best addressed. Unfortunately, this meant that he tended to criticise their work.
One by one the team members chose to leave the company, as the only way off the project. At the time, he thought they were leaving because they didn’t like being part of a failing project with an authoritarian project manager (Michael). One or two people had let slip that they thought Michael might be on the autistic spectrum. David was unable to see that he might be on the autistic spectrum too, though he could see that he shared some similar behaviour with Michael. He didn’t really understand what it meant to be autistic.
David had a conversation with Michael who suggested that he should praise his team more often. He told David that he should aim to say something positive first before giving any negative feedback. Towards the end of his time on the project, David did begin to become aware that team members were leaving because they felt that their work was not being appreciated.
David’s solution to the need for higher productivity was to work late into the evening, and every weekend. He lacked the self-confidence to confront Michael about the unrealistic delivery schedule and tried to find solutions that were within his control. He found it hard to admit to others that he could not cope.
Karen, a confident work colleague, did try to influence David to lower his standards to get the work done on time; however, his perfectionism made it difficult for him to change his working practice. He began to drink more and more, and his health began to suffer. The drinking was an attempt to escape from the anxiety that came from continually worrying that he was under-performing. Unfortunately, alcohol tended to make him even more depressed, something which did not help increase productivity across the team.
Michael called a meeting and asked for innovative ideas from David and his team to increase productivity. David’s solution was to put in place more design processes and procedures that only served to increase the administrative overhead. Other people suggested developing tools and templates that would make the production more efficient. When the project was moved to be run from another office, this is what did actually happen.
David however, did not seem to be able to initiate these efficiency tool and template ideas. He found it hard to appreciate different ways of working and incorporate the thinking of others. The project ended up making a significant financial loss. As the project manager, Michael was held responsible and forced out of the company. Michael did try to exert his authority, but his poor people management and autocratic style did not win hearts and minds. It should also be said that Michael did not get much support from his own senior management.
The project was different from other projects that Michael and David had worked on, because the profit margins had been so much tighter than previous projects to win the bid. One of the lessons the company learnt from this project was to develop better metrics for estimating the development of computer-based training.
David was aware of the importance of planning and prioritising work. Unfortunately, knowing what the priority task was at any given time did not always mean that that task was done first. He tended to put off any unpleasant tasks that might require stressful social interaction or demand skills such as selling and negotiation that he found hard to do. This meant that he was not as productive as he should have been and led to the project starting to slip behind schedule.
In business it is important to ensure client satisfaction, but it is equally important to achieve the required profit. This means that optimum quality involves achieving a balance of minimum required level of quality within the parameters dictated by the allocated budget. One key objective is to ensure that the client returns with more business in the future, but also to ensure that profitability is an overriding driver commercially from a supplier perspective.
David found it hard to accept that a good enough standard of work was what was required, not the highest possible standard. His priorities were wrong. He failed to accept that doing an adequate job was good enough and that the commercial goals needed to take precedence.
With hindsight, it is clear that Michael did not manage David and other team members effectively. He did not act quickly enough and decisively to address the missed milestones. One of the biggest problems was a failure by the client to supply the data according to plan. In fact, this became such a serious problem that a more sensible course of action would have been to put this project in hiatus, which is what actually happened when the project was moved to another office.
As his manager, Michael allowed David too much freedom to set his own agenda, and did not intervene to ensure that ideas from David’s team were adequately incorporated. Subsequent projects were successful however, because of a number of factors which were subsequently implemented: better estimation metrics were identified and became available; software tools and templates were developed to improve efficiency; more proactive planning and tracking was done; better contracts were negotiated that covered more of the possible eventualities such as delayed data supply.
Project managers were also selected that were able to make the necessary, difficult decisions and judgements in a timely fashion, and know when to escalate issues to the next level of management. They could also insist that the project be put into hiatus and to call in the legal team. It might also be fair to state that no future project had two senior members of the project team on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately, David’s lacked confidence in his own abilities and worried that whatever he produced was not good enough.
A key lesson that he learnt is that it is important to try to understand why he found it very hard to confront problems. He disliked confrontation and had a passive style of communication. He would rather try to solve problems himself, even though this often made things worse. Of course, a better course of action would have been to be open to his manager, and he did frequently flag up the growing risk from delays in data delivery.
He would also have been more productive at an individual level if he’d not felt the need to check, and re-check his work many times. Instead he chose to work weekends and evenings so he could afford to check and re-check his work to get to his high standard, and still just about meet the effort targets for the work.
He has learnt to address his lack of confidence and try use others within the company that he trusts and respects to establish what was considered to be an adequate standard. For example, he tried to do this with his storyboards for the computer-based training, but feedback from colleagues was insufficient to change his perfectionist behaviour. If he had championed the development of storyboard templates previously, this could have greatly helped ensure consistency and also reduced the need for manual quality checks. He did initiate many new processes and these have improved efficiency via methods such as quality checklists.
David also needed to develop his time management skills. Every day he should have clearly identified what was important and what was urgent to do. The important tasks are those tasks that are the highest priority, to achieve the company or project goals. Urgent tasks are those that need to be done for a pressing deadline. He understands that it is important to appreciate that an urgent task and an important task are not the same thing. A colleague’s ringing phone might be urgent, but from David’s perspective it was almost certainly not important.
With hindsight he should have paid more attention to the project so he always knew what tasks were on the critical path. These were tasks that needed to be done, before other important tasks that needed to start soon, could start. To be more productive, he needed to spend most of his time doing the important, non-urgent tasks (those aligned to the business objectives). Important and urgent tasks would naturally need to be done before any other task, but a proactive and effective manager (i.e. one that is not always reacting to situations) should be planning and delegating work, and demonstrating time management skills to minimise the number of important, urgent tasks.
If he were to find himself in a similar role in the future, he would do many things differently. Since David’s AS diagnosis 18 months ago, he is much more confident and assertive and more aware of his perfectionist tendencies and so more able to seek help and support. At the start of the project, he would have thoroughly reviewed the project plan to ensure that it was realistic. He would communicate any risks that had not been identified and proactively engage to agree effective mitigation strategies for these risks. He would then give timely feedback to his project manager if he felt that one of these risks was impacting on the project’s success.
Finally, David would give praise much more often and be more aware of the impact of his behaviour – as a person with AS – on other people. After all, good management is about getting the best from other people and that means acknowledging they have emotional needs that need to be appreciated and managed.