The Human Procrastination Curve – 7 Tactics for Sending it Down in Defeat

I recently attended a training session where the speaker* referred to the “Human Procrastination Curve,” when describing the tendency to put off project tasks until just before the deadline.  Here is my rendition of the curve:

It’s a predicament that is familiar to any project manager.    You ask your project team member how long something will take, and you get an estimate.  Depending upon the predictability of the task and the experience of the resource, you may be getting anything from a reasonable estimate to a total SWAG (silly, wild-a** guess).  Even if the estimate is 5 days, you can be sure that if you stop by your team member’s desk after two days, he or she probably hasn’t started the task.   Most project managers (PMs) combat this by automatically assuming that every estimate is padded and insisting that—whatever the estimate—the time be cut in half or by two-thirds.   I’ve been told by many PMs that this is the best way to keep the pressure on, and ensure things are done on time. 

Except, it rarely turns out that way.  More likely, the hapless team member will have been given several tasks, with all of his estimates cut in half or by two thirds, and with no hope of getting any of them done on time.  During the weekly project meeting, he will inevitably report that this and that is not done, whereupon the project manager will ask for new dates and begin the whole thing all over again.  Other project team members will follow suit, and the entire project dates will keep sliding.

OK, but what else can a PM do?  Plenty.

1.    Keep your ego in check.  Good PMs often have a lot of pride in their ability to bring a project in on time.  Pride can be a good thing, but not when your desire to hit a date blocks your ability to ask good questions and listen.  If team members feel like they can’t talk to you, they won’t; worse, they may tell you what they think you want to hear.  

2.    Train your team members to do reasonable estimates.   Instead of simply asking “how long,” ask the team member to walk you through the task:

a.     How is she going to approach it?  

b.    Are there any unknowns?  

c.    What are the dependencies?   

d.    Does she anticipate any issues that could block her efforts?  

e.    What else does she have on her plate?  Is this task her top priority, or is there something more urgent for which she is responsible?

3.    Break up the task into manageable pieces.  For example, if a BA gives you a 10-day estimate for workflow analysis, have him walk you through each sub-task, and develop check-points for each subtask.  

4.    Understand what can be multi-streamed and what cannot.  For example, if your BA is conducting workflow interviews with Portfolio Managers and Traders, a market event could easily cause a rescheduled meeting.  When this happens, the BA should already know the secondary task he can accomplish in the meantime.

5.    Understand the team members’ motivations.  I’ve had PMs tell me that their projects are “top priority” only to have a BA or Tech on the team tell me that his or her boss doesn’t think the project will work and doesn’t support it.  If your team member is reporting to someone who has a prioritized claim on her time (like her immediate supervisor, who does her annual review), you will either lose the battle for her time, or you will put the firm’s employee in the impossible position of trying to satisfy two masters with different agendas.

6.    Agree on protocols.  Your team members should notify you promptly whenever a task is delayed or stalled.  If you only find out about problems in a weekly meeting, it is too late.  With some tasks, even a day late is too late.  Figure out what the protocols should be based on the tasks, the critical path and the chain-of-command, and communicate that to the team.    

7.    Use the Critical Path.  Many of us map out the critical path, but we don’t update it after the start of the project, and we don’t share it with the members of the team.  It is a great visual, and showing a task that is blocking or delaying the path can have a huge, positive impact on the person or team responsible for delivery.

All of the above tactics require considerable time, focus and attention from the Project Manager.   But, if you’re serious about delivering a high-quality result on-time and on-budget, it is worth the investment.

*Sergiu Simmel, from EOS Business Execution