IT Mentor: Management by Procrastination

There's a time for every out-of-scope project task, and the time is later.

You have been taught since childhood not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Conventional wisdom says to do it, and do it now! My experience as a project manager, however, indicates that procrastination works.

If you’re like me, you’ve found that roughly 90% of the outside-of-scope actions that people ask to have added to a project will be changed, dropped or completed by someone else before you can get to them. All you need to do is determine which items make up the 10% that can’t be avoided. That’s where management by procrastination can change your life.

To get in the right frame of mind and drive the theory home, quietly chant the following the next time you’re sitting through a boring meeting: Procrastinate, procrastinate. Put it off till it’s too late. S-T-A-L-L. Stutter, stop ... wait.

Ninety percent of the tasks outside a project's original scope can be safely ignored, suggests Thomas Cutting.

Thomas Cutting. There isn’t much science behind my theory, but I’ve found that procrastination can be effective when others attempt to tack tasks onto your project. To make it work, you need to learn to identify tasks, prioritize them and deliver.

Identify. Many transient tasks areassigned during meetings. Someone will ask a question that results in the need for additional research, or the boss will want someone to follow up on an idea. Taking the time to really identify each task is the first step in weeding out the 90% that willmagically disappear. It involves more than just writing down whatever is asked.

First, you must confirm that what you heard was a request for action. The boss may have just been thinking out loud.

Second, make sure you’re the one he’s expecting to do it. Just because no one else is volunteering doesn’t mean you have to. If it isn’t obvious who would be the right person to do the task, ask.

Finally, put it in writing for review and approval. “Approval” in different settings can be anything from a verbal agreement to an e-mail confirmation, all the way to actual wet signatures. Choose appropriately.

So, to put this in the simplest terms, separate the real tasks from the fleeting ones by asking the following questions:

  1. Did you just say what I think you said?
  2. Are you talkin’ to me?
  3. Could you sign here ... and here ... initial this ... and thumbprint there?

At this stage, it may look like procrastination has only brought us more work. We’ve taken time away from other things to create a list. Howhas this done us any good? you may ask.

Here’s how: By acknowledging the list, everyone has admitted that all the items on it are new and not part of the original scope. As a result, some items will be dropped as unimportant. Meanwhile, as project manager, you have allowed your team members to continue their work uninterrupted as you move to the second step.

Prioritize. Determine which requests on the list are the most important. There are several ways to assign priority. The simplest and most practical method is to ask key stakeholders to rank their top three tasks and then work them into the schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, the team can rank each request based on a predetermined set of criteria. Here are some criteria that may be helpful:

Return on investment. Calculate the cost of the request and compare that with the benefit. This will allow you to determine which items will give you the biggest bang for the buck so you can focus on those. Additional work is required to define the cost, savings, profit and effect on the schedule for each request.

Functionality vs. froufrou. Items that make the system function properly are more important than bells and whistles. Use the project charter and other defining documents to compare requests against the project’s purpose and requirements. Features that fail the functionality test can be implemented in future phases.

Ease of implementation. More complex tasks are going to consume more of the time your team has to complete the project. Move these tasks to the bottom of the list in favor of quick-hit items, effectively procrastinating them into the next phase of the project.

However the decision on adding tasks is made, follow defined change management proc­esses. This will ensure that everyone agrees to each change and how it will be funded. If more money or time is required, get commitment from the sponsor before moving forward.

Has procrastination paid off yet? By taking the time to prioritize the list, you have announced to the stakeholders that their wish lists cannot be completed in their entirety. More of the requests have now moved to the 90% category — those you can ignore.

Deliver. Now you’ve narrowed the to-do list down to the hypothetical 10% that can’t be ignored. Because these tasks will reduce your team’s productivity and affect the project delivery dates, they need to be placed in the schedule with resources assigned to them. You can now see and report on the effect this will have on the project schedule.

Then do the work. It sounds simple, but if you have committed to it and your stakeholders are expecting it, you had better get it done. Treat the tasks like the others in your plan, and track each to completion. Report the continued effect on the schedule.

Finally, announce the completion of significant items. This feedback builds stakeholders’ confidence in both the process and the team.

So don’t put it off any longer. Start procrastinating today.

Cutting is a project management professional and senior principal consultant at Keane Inc. in California. Contact him at Thomas.Cutting@keane.com.

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