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I usually advise my students to encourage their team members to not provide padded work estimates, but rather to make schedule contingencies visible and tie these contingencies to milestones rather than to individual activities.

This is intended to counter the potential confluence of Parkinson’s Law (work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion), Student Syndrome (let’s wait till the very last possible moment to start an undesired activity) and Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong).

While this behavior might be true in some circumstances, it is based on a rather Theory X view of the world. Student Syndrome hurts no one other than the student procrastinating on starting their homework assignments or preparing for an exam. With projects, the impact of delays from one team member ripple downstream to others so with the exception of that small minority of Homer Simpson-like workers most of us want to do a good day’s work.

So if the fault doesn’t lie with the individual contributors, where else could we look for answers?

Today’s Dilbert cartoon provides us with better root causes for this behavior – the system which people work in or the managers they work for.

How could the system affect work completion? Poorly thought out performance measures are one way:

  • If staff are measured based on utilization , then completing work in less time means they are either going to be reprimanded or handed more work which they might not be able to complete by working a sustainable pace.
  • If they are paid based on the hours they work, they could be tempted to work to plan to avoid being financially penalized for completing early.
  • If they are measured based on the accuracy of their predictions (I.e. they are penalized for being early or late), then the work will tend to be completed exactly on time.
  • If they are forced to fill out weekly timesheets and the process to do so is onerous, it might be easier for them to just copy planned time over as actual time within their time recording system.

Managers can also inadvertently cause staff to complete work on time, but rarely early by:

  • Penalizing team members who complete work early on their future tasks by setting unrealistic target dates
  • Giving them additional projects or operational activities to do rather than letting them use that slack time productively
  • Breaking their focus by interrupting their work with urgent but un-important tasks

If we recognize that project activity durations are more likely to follow a lognormal distribution than the nice symmetrical normal distribution which we hope for, then we should praise team members for completing work early (within quality, safety, health and other constraints) rather than introducing impediments which discourage them from doing so.

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