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Those Who Execute

Technical and human factors can contribute to a project's success or failure. Watch Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne explain more.
It’s a good time to pause and reflect on what I have already defined as the project management paradox. We have sophisticated tools, we’re all now experts on how to plan a project, how to think about the risks and how to come up with a good risk management plan. We know how to think about the execution and what type of systems we would like to put in place to monitor, report and to take corrective action. But still most projects fail. They are either too late or they go and run over budget and sometimes both. Their functionalities suffers. And so what is it in the execution itself? What are the components that actually lead us astray?
What are the systems or what are the reasons, that we can find, that projects don’t progress as smoothly as we’ve hoped that they would. And even our best risk management plans don’t help us in cases of emergency. Well, we can identify several sources. Let’s think about technical factors and then let’s think of individual factors or human component. On the technical side we have the complexity dimension. We have complex projects with many interactions between many different tasks that could lead to unknown, unexpected outcomes. Not only are the tasks linked and dependent upon each other, there are many of them. But sometimes they depend on external functionalities, and external parties, that all come together during the execution of the project.
We have internal complexity in our firm, in our company, and we have external factors. Regulation that has changed, and weather emergencies or changes in the environment or perhaps suddenly a competitor has launched a product onto the market that we need to react to and takes us in a completely different direction. And actually implies a cost over run, for our project, and a delay to our schedule. Those are some factors that exist in many settings. But other factors exist as well. And they have to do with the humans. They have to do with the nature in which we operate and how we all like to work on a day to day basis.
One of the key factors that ultimately leads to delays is the fact that we like to multi-task. I multi-task all the time. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the entire nine months of being pregnant and being on maternity leave if I couldn’t also multi-task and do other things at the same time. Using my iPad and using my iPhone. We multitask everyday in the office. I answer some emails, I work on a paper, I answer some emails, I go and teach in the classroom.
Many of us find it reassuring or find it easier to cope with a whole load of work if we can multitask throughout the day, throughout the week, and find ourselves moving from one item to the next. But multitasking can add a huge amount of extra time to our project. And why is that? Well, some obvious reasons like, set up cost. It always takes us a few minutes to rethink about what it was that we were doing, or get back into the zone of a specific item that we were working on. If we step away physically, it could be demanding and we could add some physical time into it by just multi-tasking and moving from one thing to the next.
But there’s also an obvious reason why multi-tasking is problematic and why it delays the delivery. And let me try and explain this through a small example. This example that my coauthor and long term collaborator, Bertha Rike likes to give, and I think you’ll find it very appealing. Imagine that we were trying to execute three tasks, a purple task, a yellow task and a green task. Each one of these tasks takes us pretty much the same amount of time, one unit of time. And so, if we did them sequentially, if we could devote all of our attention to completing the purple task, it would be completed in time period 1.
The yellow task would be completed in time period 2, and the green task would be completed after 3 time units. Now what happens if we start to multi-task? Let’s do a third of each at any given time and just move from one to the next. Chop them up, so our lives are a little more interesting. We can definitely do that, but if we do that, when is the earliest that we will be completing our first task? The first task that will be completed under the multitasking schedule is after two and a third units of time. Meaning, a whole delay of over one unit of time from when we could have completed the purple task if we focused on it solely.
And so the transformation, or if we wanna transition the task, or we wanna pass on the information that we’ve gained from completing one task, to the person who’s dependent on it down the road, has been delayed by this amount of time, because we chose to multitask. There are some satisfying aspects of multi-tasking by the fact that we can report some progress on all three dimensions, but in reality it implies that we will be delayed in transitioning each one of these tasks down the road. And of course this is the best case scenario. In reality when we start to multi-task, there will be additional transition time between the different activities.
And so it is very important that we realize that the multi-tasking activity that we might choose to engage in does have implications in terms of the schedule of our project. Two other factors we’ve mentioned in the past that have to do with how individuals actually execute unwork will lead to some delays in our project. Or will imply that we might face some scheduling issues throughout the execution. Parkinson’s Law and Student Syndrome. Parkinson’s Law implies that if we’re given an allotted amount of time, we will fill it up. We will work throughout the entire duration. Meaning if we were told that we have a week to complete a task, we will take a week to complete the task.
And even if we don’t, we are not that likely to go ahead and deliver a piece of work sooner. Student syndrome implies that if we have some slack, we will probably procrastinate. We will take advantage of that slack and actually perform the task that we’re expected to do at the very last minute. And so, if we want to try yet again to correct for these phenomena, or to think about them and to take them onboard and to say, how can we help the individuals not multitask as much? Or what can we do to ensure that individuals don’t use up the entire allotted time? There are several things that we can do.
We can put in place some mechanisms that allow us to overcome some of these phenomenon, and to perhaps speed up delivery of our project, or be less likely to run over time and indeed over budget.
Thinking about working in smaller teams, breaking up the work into smaller components. And allowing our team to be more independent in selecting those activities will encourage us all to work in a more efficient way. If we work on smaller pieces of work, we’re less likely to multi-task cuz we can feel more satisfaction sooner by completing a task in front of us. If we work as a team, we might be more inclined to actually report that we’ve completed early because we know that in that case if we become available, we can help a team member and help them solve their problem because we have completed early.
And next time, when we’re delayed, we know that somebody will come and help us out as well. Instead of working with individual, tasked units and individual buffers on each task that we are assigned, think about the buffer on a project level. Step back and combine forces. And say, we’ll each try or best to complete a task as soon as we can. And we’ll allow ourselves some room to manuever on a project level. Again, that will encourage us to actually speed our work up, report that we’re done, and go ahead and help our team work towards that overall goal of meeting our project’s completion time.
And so small changes to the way that we divide up the work and the way that we organize our work flow, might help us overcome some of the phenomena that induce extra time and extra budget in our projects.

In this video, Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne addresses the importance of considering and identifying the technical and human factors that can contribute to a project’s success or failure.

As you watch this video, think about what technical and/or human factors might contribute to the success or failure of one of your projects. Then consider which mechanisms you could consider putting into place to address these factors.

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Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management

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