Do you remember when you were in school and the professor gave you a large project and a generous amount of time to complete it? Let’s say three months. Now, do you know when most people are likely to start tackling the project?

The answer is the last minute. Most students started well after the assignment date because people rely on their personal stress barometers to motivate and push them.

This type of necessary stress is referred to as “Eustress.” It’s not the fault of the student. It’s the fact that many people need to feel some threshold of pressure in order to produce. The same goes for product teams building software - a lack of constructive pressure can be detrimental for a team and the project timeline.

Product teams without concrete goals struggle to deliver. Complacency is a comfortable beast that can sneak up on any team and wreak quiet havoc on velocity and motivation. Dr. George Pratt says it best in his book Hyper-Performance, when he states that “establishing and following a system of priorities will help you and your team maintain efficiency and realize your goals faster.”

Below, you can see that direction and motivation come from a strong base in a company’s overall mission as well as more precise team and individual goals. If any part of this pyramid is weak or undefined, it makes it extremely difficult to value the time you’re putting in and use it well. In this article, we are focusing on the last two blocks of the pyramid (strategic initiatives and personal objectives), which is a fine illustration of the benefits that come with getting this right.

The Strategy-Focused Organization, R. Kaplan, P. Norton, 2001, Harvard Business School Publication

It’s human nature to relish in a loose deadline with time to ponder, relax, refactor, try new things, and go home feeling like you put in a solid day's work. The issue is that this can quickly snowball and leave an individual or team compensating for that early lack of stress with an overload of stress later. So how do we balance this?

Let me start by saying there are two kinds of stress. One is the aforementioned “Eustress,” which we can call Constructive Pressure (CP) and the other one is Negative Stress (NS). It is absolutely critical to instill CP into your daily routine/work and into the project so that the whole team feels it relatively evenly.

This means having clear goals for your sprints, clear deliverables, and a way to measure success and determine whether you have reached your goals. The outcome of a sprint can count as a small short-term goal. The bigger deliverables and goals are your project milestones. When a team feels CP and everyone knows how and why they are working to deliver their goals, it actually makes work easier.

To quote an old seaman's adage:

“A ship without a destination has no favorable wind.”

Efficient product teams create uniform CP to motivate people and ensure that people on the project know what they are working towards as well as to refrain from creating NS. Everyone has experienced NS at some point in their career, and it’s not always created through mismanagement.

The best way to handle NS is to avoid it because it wears down team members, leads to resentment, and often results in a higher turnover rate. The end of a project gets busy by nature If you stick tightly to your goals and milestones throughout the lifecycle of your project, there is every reason to anticipate a successful delivery and a happy team.

A team without clear goals cannot be expected to deliver their projects on time and with the agreed scope. Creating goals requires preparation, asking the right questions, and mutual agreement. These three things build clarity and a mission for your team to go after and declare victory! Start setting your goals and see how your project teams slowly start to evolve into more efficient units that deliver consistently on their objectives.