April 20, 2014

How a results-only focus can prevent project overruns

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Chained to the Desk

Chained to the Desk II by EvilFire4321 on deviantart.com

Getting an early start is, usually, a good thing.  Unfortunately, when getting a jump on things isn’t accompanied by also finishing ahead of time, you tend to get the exact opposite of what you’d hoped for:  overrunning costs and delayed schedules.  Especially if we’re talking about project teams, where work products are intricately intertwined and dependencies abound.

I’ve seen many instances over the years of well-meaning leads who find a hole of time they need to fill, so they direct their people to begin some downstream effort early.  Unfortunately, there comes a point where they can progress no further without inputs from some other element and must wait.  So…in the best cases, they wait – which is an underutilization of resources, or what’s worse – they get creative.  They find a way to fill the time.  Which means they are spending money on something they don’t need to spend it on (like downstream tasks that have insufficient input).

The problem gets exacerbated when, by directing work to begin in advance of the arrival of necessary inputs, the team gets too far ahead.  When the anticipated inputs arrive, the team learns that the assumption they made prior to receiving firm inputs was wrong, so they will need to go back and do some part of the work over, under greater time pressure, and with the budget already spent.  This is, essentially, the “we don’t have time to do it right, but we can sure do it twice” phenomenon in action.

This is all due to flaws in the environment.  Managers who are pressured to keep their people busy will create tasking of suspicious value for the appearance of looking productive.  It’s also a problem stemming from weak staff development practices – if you were growing your people, those lulls would be opportunities for developing new skills or – heaven forbid – allowing people to pursue their own projects.

Think of it this way:  The only reason the manager feels compelled to start early, only to rework the activity later, or expend more cost than planned while the task’s duration extends, is to maintain the perception that valuable work is being performed.  What if, instead of scrounging for ways to create work no one wants, or needs right now, that is at great risk of leaning too far forward and producing the wrong thing – the manager simply let the workers leave?  What would it matter?

The real culprit is the need for that manager to monitor people’s time at all.  Frankly, if the work required of you today is done – why fill the time until 5pm rolls around (which is an entirely arbitrary phenomenon anyway)?  Why not let the staff determine how to spend that time, whether at work or away, as long as all obligations are met?

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  • http://journeymanpm.com Bert Heymans

    Good read, thanks! I’ve been puzzled by the perception problem for quite some time now, it’s weird how far people go in order to look good. I’ve been in situations so ridiculous that results didn’t even get measured or evaluated, the way you looked delivering them was effectively more important. I believe it’s a company culture thing, and like you put it, a flaw in the environment.

  • http://myflexiblepencil.com/about_davidk/ David M. Kasprzak

    Thanks, Bert.

    I really wonder what would happen if doing work for the sake of “looking busy” was not something that was rewarded, but frowned upon. Managers ought to have better things to do, and employees have more value to offer than performing unnecessay actions, don’t they?

    The ROWE concept is a lot broader and deeper that it’s given credit for, I think. The more I contemplate its implications, the more profound I feel it becomes.