When a project is falling behind, managers have two choices: allocate more time to the work (making the timelines for other projects tighter), or ask employees to put in extra hours to hit the deadline.
Neither of those options is appealing.
Even the best-planned projects seem to fall behind schedule, leaving employees stressed and overworked. No amount of padding seems to prevent bottlenecking or having to rush completions.
Why is this? And how can it be prevented?
The Psychology Behind Late Projects
Many project managers try to build in extra time to account for delays or factors out of their control; however, this still results in projects running behind.
In an article for Project Smart, Samuel Okoro explains two psychological mechanisms for why projects finish late, even if everything goes according to plan:
- Student’s Syndrome: Time estimates create delays in productivity. When a professor assigns a paper, most students don’t start writing it that day, but rather begin a day or two before the deadline. This also occurs in companies when employees work on other tasks and then rush to complete a project before the deadline.
- Parkinson’s Law: This is the theory that “work expands to fill the time available for it.” If an employee finishes a task earlier, they’re unlikely to deliver it ahead of schedule because it sets a precedent that the task takes less time and future projects might have tighter deadlines. Instead, they continue to add additional features and submit the project right on their deadlines.
This is why projects with several weeks of padding still run over, and more time can actually derail your processes.
The problem with Student’s Syndrome, a likelier reason for a late project if your staff is juggling multiple clients, is that people tend to idealize their deadlines and the time it takes to complete them.
According to Priceonomics, planners fail to plan for the actual amount of time that tasks require and instead focus on ideal situations of productivity, otherwise known as Daniel Kahneman’s “planning fallacy.”
In the field, an employee might allocate three days for a project and start it three days before it’s due, failing to account for problems and distractions that extend a project length to a week. This is how even excessively padded projects end up late.
Balancing Effectiveness and Efficiency
As project managers start creating timelines, they tend to focus on the speed and efficiency of a project. This can actually be a mistake if effectiveness is overlooked.
“Effectiveness is far more important because it assists you with creating things of quality rather than of quantity,” the team at Productivityist writes. “Doing something efficiently gets it done, but doing something effectively gets it done well — and usually within a reasonable speed the better you get at it.”
Even if the work is completed in the allotted time, overtime is likely to be required to make changes and clean up errors that could have been solved had the employee focused on the quality of production.
Stacy Goff, CEO of Project Experts, cautions management teams to tread carefully in balancing efficiency and effectiveness. “Efficiency tends to focus on process; effectiveness tends to focus on results — or consequences, a form of result,” he writes. “Do you not require both in your projects?” An inefficient process will lead to poor results.
In order to balance efficiency with effectiveness, project managers need to constantly look ahead for potential obstacles, ambiguities and deadlines that your employees could struggle with — like guides helping hikers through a trail. Jennifer Bridges, PMP explains that PMs can accomplish this through four key responsibilities:
- Removing barriers: Project managers work to find roadblocks and reasons employees slow down in order to remove them. This might be a convoluted approval process or a lack of clarity in directions.
- Rewarding team behavior: By fostering a culture of collaboration and rewarding teamwork, project managers can encourage employees to work together to solve problems in the future.
- Following up with deadlines: Instead of “setting and forgetting” deadlines or milestones, project managers check in and make sure all parties are meeting the desired timeline.
- Clarifying expectations: Not only should the scope of the project be clear, but employees should also understand how they’re meant to achieve it and with what resources or vendors.
While removing a barrier can improve efficiency, taking time to clarify expectations can improve effectiveness. Project clarifications might slow down the work, but will prevent overtime in the future.
Case Study: Emory Healthcare
Ineffective processes can actually cost lives in certain industries such as healthcare, where providers end up working unpaid overtime to complete their charts.
Physicians at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta often had to take their work home to complete patient documentation. Akanksha Jayanthi says the staff even called this “Pajama Time,” when employees were in the system between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
This led the organization to look into how much time proficient system users were spending per patient. As it turns out, they were spending an inordinate amount of time clicking through forms — and clicks could be counted. So, they developed tools to make the process times less click-intensive and thereby faster. By streamlining the forms, there were fewer clicks because the answers were filled in faster — and faster form-filling reduced Pajama Time.
And by making the form process more effective with the right tools, the team at Emory also made the process more efficient. Within eight weeks of the tool development, 33 percent of clicks were eliminated from the workflow and physician “Pajama Time” dropped 36 percent. More than 37 departments and 1,650 providers have benefited from this change.
Five Tips Project Managers Can Use to Improve Workflow
Workflow improvements occur when project managers balance efficiency and effectiveness. By following these five steps, you can work to create better project plans that accurately measure your timelines while building safeguards against unexpected roadblocks.
1. Make Sure You’re Involved Throughout the Whole Process
One of the main reasons for project managers to get involved from the beginning and stay involved is because delays can occur at any stage of the project. In an article for Project Manager Australia, Bhauvik Tripathi writes that delays can build up as early as the conception process, then continue all the way through planning, execution and performance testing.
When a client has changes for a project, the account manager should immediately call the project manager to see whether the adjustments are feasible before agreeing to them.
“If you are involved in the beginning stages, you will likely be able to avoid certain issues and come up with the cost effective ideas and strategies,” Tyler Riddell writes at eSUB. “Being present also ensures that you are in the loop and are informed of the details going into the project.”
By staying directly involved in meetings and communication, PMs can develop a strong relationship with the accounts team.
2. Extend the Research and Development Phase
The team at Yeti points to the R&D stage as a crucial time for project managers to learn about the scope, requirements and resources needed.
“The more sophisticated the project, the more unknowns there will be,” Rudy Mutter writes. “This phase should be done up front so the resolutions are clear, rather than later as part of the development process when this could cause major delays.”
3. Clarify Deadlines for Specific Teams
Of all the reasons for projects to run late, teams and supervisors not knowing the project schedule is a major culprit, according to Paul Netscher.
“Management may give a copy of the updated schedule to supervisors, but often this is the schedule for the whole project for the remaining duration and it could be several or even hundreds of pages long,” he writes. “Most supervisors are only concerned with their section of work and what needs to be done in the next couple of weeks.”
By providing relevant schedules, ideally in pictorial form with highlighted delivery dates, you can reduce confusion and increase awareness about the project.
4. Improve Your Mediation Skills
Top project managers also serve as mediators within their companies. Working as a mediator can help resolve problems between supervisors, employees, clients and account teams.
The team at DSD Business Systems writes that projects can come to a standstill during a conflict, either as two teams battle it out, or as a production team pushes back against the account manager and client. By analyzing the project map for opportunities, PMs can look for solutions that will benefit both parties.
5. Cross-Train You Teams in Project Management
Vendors and employees need to hone their own internal project management skills to realistically balance their own workloads and timelines.
Nathan Ellering was amused by an article at Forbes that said marketers make great creatives but terrible project managers. When his team is given a new piece of a project to work on, he says, they follow their own management process to define their project requirements and ensuring it meets both the client and audience’s needs. Project management is a skillset that can be improved across your entire organization for greater efficiency.
The Real Cost of Overtime to Companies and Employees
Letting your projects fall behind and asking employees to work late might not seem like a major problem, but it can have a massive impact on your company over the course of your year.
Not only do delays take a toll on your reputation, but they also increase your labor costs and account for employee wear and tear, otherwise known as burnout.
Raj Narayanaswamy, co-CEO at Replicon, reports that employers withhold an estimated $50 billion annually in overtime pay by making employees work late hours and off the clock. This has lead the Department of Labor to change its rules regarding overtime compensation to prevent employees from overworking themselves without due pay.
Neglected compensation is only the first draining factor for employees. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Sarah Green Carmichael reports that consistently putting in extra hours can lead to impaired sleep, depression, impaired memory and heart disease. Carmichael writes that even companies that aren’t as invested in employee health will see the results of overworking them in the form of higher turnover rates, absenteeism and higher insurance premiums.
Pushing to finish a project on time through extra hours and stressed employees might work in the short run, but the long-run consequences will hurt your bottom line.