Ostensibly originating in Rebel Without a Cause the game of chicken entails a test of courage between two or more individuals. Each participant is seated in a speeding vehicle (50s sports car, farm tractor, failing project schedule, etc.) racing toward a certain demise (cliff, head-on collision, delivery failure). The chicken is the participant who abandons his vehicle (or comes clean with management) first. The chicken either loses the contrived, Hollywood-scripted contest or gets reamed by management. The participant who bails from his vehicle last (or avoids having to come clean with management) either gets the girl or is rewarded with another project to go and wreck. In rare cases, I suppose, he might get both.
And therein lies the true and long-term damage of this particular anti-practice. In Hollywood movies chicken is a one-time contest. For project management, schedule chicken is an iterative game, where the most dishonest and deceptive participant wins and is encouraged to hone his destructive behavior so as to win again in the next round. In management environments that foster schedule chicken, transparency and honesty are inadvertently discouraged and even punished.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore the project teams strapped to the backs of these vehicles as they speed toward the inevitable. Even though the dueling PMs have a terrible tendency to do just that.
I have met project managers who are consistent victors at schedule chicken. They hop from one project wreck to the next, while the incurious executives eye them as can-do rockstars. Sometimes the project teams don’t know what hit them. Sometimes they do. But even then, no one’s really listening to the opinions of the bit players.
I’ve found only one effective defense against hard-core schedule chicken. Don’t play the game. Establish my own rules before the contest has a chance to start. Go über-transparent from day one. Let management know what’s really going down on the project, both good and bad. And keep management up-to-date on a weekly schedule. The key to disclosing the bad is that I must always have and present a strategy to explain how I am going to correct for it.
This über-transparency keeps me from ever heading toward the cliff. It guides me and my teams to correct issues and risks as they arise, and the project timelines and project teams are better for it. Further, über-transparency can send management looking for the same wealth of information from other project managers, making it more difficult for them to get a running start at the cliff.
Even if other PMs continue to play schedule chicken, by not playing my project teams and I cannot lose.