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I handle a small development team in a startup company. We are limited in resources and amount of people in the team. But recently, the owner of the company started asking ridiculous and unrealistic expectations from the team. Some examples are below:

  • The team does not have a designer nor a front-end developer. But they want a perfect, modern, eye catching and highly usable interface where you can do everything in one to two clicks and yet you do not want to overwhelm the users with too much information on the screen. The back-end developers are being blamed based upon mistakes on front-end development where they have no experience nor design applications.
  • Incomplete mockups submitted by the management where we have one of the two problems; They expect to be developed even though it is not agreed upon causing many patches, or agreed upon and developed and then nobody thinks it is appropriate feature anymore. I would not mind some changes as those happen normally, but it becomes the mistake of the development team somehow. In both cases, the task keeps stuck in the loop for a long while and then it is team's fault.
  • The company does not have any person with UX experience and yet they are blamed about usability issues. We even brought at the end a usability expert and said there are only minor issues.
  • We currently are requested to do an amount of job that needs at least three times the amount of people to handle it with such deadlines and expectations. I cannot ask the team to work so much after work, so I end up working around 80 hours per week (no weekends) just to try to reach the expectations and yet don't reach it somehow. It has been going on for two months with that high amount of hours.
  • After a task is completed, they focus on small stuff that are barely important rather than the functionality. In the last task, they got angry of a spelling mistake written by someone whose second language is English and did not even try the functionality itself.
  • They either don't read emails or forget quickly. Many things were mentioned lots of times and then at one point it becomes new news.

I have mentioned in many occasions what we are missing but rarely get a solution. That behavior was not like that before and they were quite appreciative and nice. I would like to have a long term solution to fix that issue. How can I enforce the management to follow a clear system when requesting a task? and how to deal with unrealistic expectations with no to limited resources related to that part?

Any assistance is appreciated

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    I really wish I could say this was an isolated problem. – paparazzo Dec 10 '15 at 19:54
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But recently, the owner of the company started asking ridiculous and unrealistic expectations from the team.

The above comment indicates this is not "normal" behavior. Things have changed and you don't know why.

Your management is anxious. It could be a financial problem or an opportunity. They need to have you focused on getting done what the company needs, not necessarily what you think the company needs.

The company does not have any person with UX experience and yet they are blamed about usability issues. We even brought at the end a usability expert and said there are only minor issues.

The usability expert had minor changes but management was dissatisfied? Again, you don't have the whole picture. They either are having a hard time articulating the problem they face (like maybe trying to please a customer?) or are just trying to find fault because they don't want to tell you the problem (like a threat from a venture capitalist investor to force a sale of the company).

After a task is completed, they focus on small stuff that are barely important rather than the functionality.

This is another indication that your perception of what is important and their perception are no longer the same.

Focus on trying to understand why they want things different now. Most likely your startup is running into trouble, management used to think that everything would be fine and now they are under extreme pressure from whoever provided the money because they missed deliverables, deadlines and/or forecasts. They are now scrambling to figure out what to do to keep everyone happy.

(I'm not saying that your job is in danger. Venture capital companies don't like to lose money, so your company may be sold to another company - but the big payday that the "executives" at your company were hoping for is slipping away. They sound anxious, confused and getting desperate.)

  • I agree that they're probably desperate. Either they're running out of time/money or their investors are squeezing them. What you have to realize is the person who is really to blame is in a position where he probably can't get fired. They need to blame someone who can get fired, and they'll cycle through a few of you until they figure out they're blaming the wrong people. But you probably can't avoid the axe. You may find this helpful reading workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/19360/… – Amy Blankenship Dec 10 '15 at 22:20
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This is a problem that afflicts organizations large and small, global and local, public and private sector. Organizations fail to put adequate resources into a solution, and then are surprised that results are a reflection of the effort put into the solution. In recent years, some of this has been driven by economics--with work in short supply, demand more of the workers. However, the problem precedes the 2008 Meltdown.

You say that you have mentioned the issue on many occasions. At what level and to whom have you mentioned it? Immediate supervisor, one up, the owner herself? I ask because it's possible the person to whom you mentioned it might not have passed it along any higher up. As such, the owner may believe all is well, even though there is a breakdown in communication at some level in the organization.

You say the behavior was not like that before. Before what? Was there an approximate date when things changed? Was there some kind of shakeup in the organization? Did the owner lose a spouse, a parent, undergo a divorce, etc., that you know of? Clearly you've noticed the change, but what happened or was happening at or around the time of the change?

Is there is a process in place that is not being adhered to, and which most would agree if you drew conspicuous attention to said process that yes that is our process and yes we are supposed to follow that? If yes, then start there with that process. If you attempt to boil the ocean, you will fail and frustrate both yourself and those around you. Go to your immediate supervisor, and focus in on this one issue. Attempt to resolve it and get more universal compliance. If you succeed, look for another such issue you believe you can fight and win. After several successful fights, you will then have some intellectual ammunition to put on the table pointing to larger issues in the org that need to be addressed.

As a back up plan, pick up a copy of "Death March" by Ed Yourdon for some perspective. The 2nd Edition was published in 2003, and a 3rd Edition is planned for May 2016. You can find it used on Amazon for $6 including shipping, but hit up the local library and you can probably get it free. Death March Projects are a fact of life, and this book can be something of a survival guide to them--assuming the Project is survivable. Look at the four types of Death March Project--Mission Impossible, USMC, Kamikaze, and Suicide. If it's Mission Impossible, then it's survivable. If it's USMC, then it's survivable, but you may be miserable. If it's Kamikaze or Suicide, get out.

One final bit of advice from Yourdon. It is easier to find another organization that matches your values than it is to change the values of an organization.

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Enforce a way to handle them

You don't get to enforce things on your bosses unless you have leverage unfortunately. Projects being done substandardly (in their perception) does not provide leverage. Results do.

This is fairly common in a startup where the boss or bosses are not familiar with developing. Many assume that a programmer just knows everything. The test of a good team is that they can in fact handle everything, this is what startups need at least at the beginning. Due to the budgets on many startups there is not a lot of leeway for hiring new people.

You will need to talk to the bosses at some point and tell them you guys can't handle it, and hope they don't find someone who can both handle the front end and your job as well.

There are a few ways to mitigate against the problem.

Firstly if possible get the bosses to have a technical person involved at the planning stage so everyone actually knows what they're doing.

Secondly, upskill in a hurry, that's what is usually expected and done, it provides great experience for an up and coming developer, but it means a lot more work.

If the bosses are being totally unrealistic, then start looking for another job and soldier on until you have one. It looks like you have morale and motivation issues in your team, so this may well be the best solution for you.

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I really wish I could say this was an isolated problem.

Yes those are unrealistic exceptions. A modern UI requires a UI person.

Not even sure a UX person would help with unrealistic expectations.

You cannot force an owner to use a clear system.

I really wish I could give you a proper answer based on experience.

I have gone into design reviews of a (working) prototype and an hour later they are still talking about screen colors and we have not even gotten to actually running the feature.

What I think you need is really strong UX person that will also manage and set expectation. You could get a pure UX practitioner that just gives you some modern UI with proper mockup but you still don't have the expertise / resources. I had a UX person come and tell us to take away cancel button that all action needs to run less than one second - a UX person without reasonable expectation will only make it worse.

Don't burn yourself out as no matter how many hours you put in is not going to fix this until the process is fixed.

If this is small dev team in a startup and the owner is starting to step in then the startup may be in trouble. It would be good to polish up your resume and put some feelers out there.

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