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This one thing could be seriously sabotaging your productivity

July 4, 2021
Borderless Leadership

Team projects are notorious for taking far more time than expected, which means you don’t have to go far to find some famous examples.

Apple pushed off the launch of its HomePod because it needed “a little more time” to refine it. Windows continuously delayed an anticipated feature for Windows 10, before quietly axing it altogether. Even construction of the Sydney Opera House was only supposed to take 4 years. It ended up taking 14.

But why does this happen? Why does team productivity (and as a result, your schedule) run off the rails? Parkinson’s Law has a lot to do with it.

Parkinson’s Law is the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. Put simply, the amount of work required adjusts to the time available for its completion. The term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for The Economist in 1955.

Here’s a simple example: You and your team have two weeks to plan a surprise party for one of your colleagues. It’s more than enough time to reserve the conference room, order a cake, and buy some party hats.

But because you know you have more than enough time at your disposal, that party grows more and more complex. Kate wants to create an embarrassing slideshow. Brandon is eager to decorate the conference room. Maureen thinks your team should create a handmade card.

Now that party that should’ve really been a simple and quick undertaking is something that actually requires the two weeks to complete. That’s Parkinson’s Law in action.

Aside from the work itself becoming increasingly complex, procrastination is another key player in Parkinson’s Law. Knowing that we have a set amount of time to do something often inspires us to leave work to the very last minute—and our delays in getting started mean the time required for that task expands.

Aumarie Benipayo, a program manager at Atlassian, saw this happen firsthand in a previous position, where she worked with development teams that organized work into four-week sprints. “All of the work that was required for that sprint was coming in at the very end,” she says. “Nothing was being completed in the duration of the four weeks.”

Why? Well, one educated guess is that looming deadlines are motivating. The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that there’s an optimal level of arousal that improves our task performance. So, that fast-approaching end date gives us a much-needed kick in the pants to buckle down and focus.

While Parkinson’s Law is most often talked about in regard to personal productivity, it really rears its ugly head in group settings where counterproductive tendencies are ever-present. For example, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality states that people within organizations often give undue time and attention to trivial matters.

There’s also social loafing, which is the tendency of people working in groups to put forth less effort than they would on solo projects.

“You know there are a lot of other people responsible, which sort of lessens your own agency and those feelings of social responsibility get distributed out among the whole group,” explains Nick Wignall, a clinical psychologist and author.

Understanding Parkinson’s Law is only half the battle. What you really want to know is how to prevent that eleventh hour crunch to get work shipped.

However, combating Parkinson’s Law isn’t something that will easily happen when you’re smack dab in the middle of a project.

The best route is to start early by planning a successful project kickoff where you can set expectations about how your team will approach and conquer those larger projects that are prone to scope creep and procrastination. Here’s what you should cover during that meeting.

Imagine that your boss just asked you to alphabetize a giant stack of files (no rush—whenever you can get around to it). You have no idea what the files are, if they’re important, or why they need to be alphabetized. How motivated are you to tackle those files right away?

Not very, right? That’s because there’s no clear importance or impact associated with the task, and research shows that teams who understand how their work fits into the bigger picture are more effective (they’re more creative and resilient, to boot).

At the start of your group project, it should be made painfully obvious to your team:

What this project’s value is (this is the vision)
Why this project makes sense for your team and your organization (these are the drivers)
Ensuring alignment around those pieces empowers team members to see the impact of their work, which will ignite their motivation and sense of ownership over their assigned tasks and milestones.

For any project, but especially ones with a lot of different players and teams in the mix, it’s crucial that you clearly outline where everybody fits.

Benipayo uses the DACI framework to establish clear roles related to group work and decision-making.

D = Driver. The one person responsible for corralling stakeholders, collating all necessary information, and getting a decision made by the agreed date. This may or may not be the project’s full-time owner, depending on the decision.
A = Approver. The one person who makes the decision.
C = Contributors. They have knowledge or expertise that may influence the decision i.e., they have a voice, but no vote.
I = Informed. They are informed of the final decision.
Using this sort of framework to show team members how their role fits in helps to prevent buck-passing and social loafing, as they’re forced to take more accountability for their assigned responsibilities and contributions.

This also helps to streamline expectations around communication and feedback, which can be major sticking points in group projects.

This framework establishes who has the final say on decisions and projects, which eliminates a lot of the back and forth about (oftentimes conflicting) revisions and suggestions that cause projects to expand and drag on.

Remember, Parkinson’s Law is more than a fancy term for procrastination—it means that work expands to fill the allotted time. That’s the very definition of scope creep, isn’t it?

During your project kickoff, you and your team should agree upfront about what is in and out of scope for the project.

By establishing these guidelines from the outset, your whole team is better equipped to nip Parkinson’s Law in the bud. When a new feature request or another suggestion comes up during the course of the project, you can point back to your project kickoff and remind the team that you all agreed that sort of thing was out of scope.

Think of this step as building a box for your project. You define parameters that the project needs to fit within, which is a surefire way to catch work expansion as it’s happening, rather than after it’s already sabotaged your timeline.

Despite your best intentions in hosting an effective project kickoff, things still happen. Unexpected surprises crop up and threaten to throw your whole project out of scope and off schedule.

In those moments, you’ll be glad that you identified your trade-offs early on. Your trade-offs allow you to see where you have the most wiggle room available in a project, should you need to make last-minute adjustments.

Timing, scope, and budget are the most common vectors to play with here, and these should be prioritized during your kickoff.

For example, if your team is working to get a new product created ahead of an upcoming user conference, then timing is your most important metric. The product absolutely needs to be done by then, which might mean you’ll need to make some tradeoffs in terms of scope (reducing features) and/or budget (investing more).

This might seem disheartening to do at the start of a project, but it’s undeniably helpful when you reach those critical moments when decisions need to be made.

“Once we realized that the work was not going to be completed in time as it was scoped, the team was able to go back and re-prioritize what was most important for launch.” says Benipayo.

It’s almost the exact opposite of Parkinson’s Law—rather than work expanding to fit allotted time, you might actually need to reduce the work or other expectations to fit the time window.

It’s interesting that the timeline is the last step of the project kickoff, isn’t it? That almost never happens in real life. But it’s a smart way to approach projects.

Think about building a house. You wouldn’t approach a builder and say, “I need a house that’s this size and looks exactly like this example, and I need it by this date.” No, you and the builder would talk through your expectations and the work required, and then set a completion date with that information in mind.

Set your deadlines in days rather than weeks or months. One study showed it’s a small mental shift that can amp up that urgency factor.

In an ideal world, group projects would work the same way. The timeline would come last, after you and team members have agreed on the scope.

While outlining your timeline, you should identify milestones and deadlines that occur within the project. “You need to be really deliberate about breaking down group projects or goals into subgroups,” explains Wignall.

This makes the larger project more manageable, and instills a greater sense of urgency to get the work started—even if the end date for the whole project isn’t fast approaching, the deadline for that first task certainly is. Plus, this allows the team to feel like they’re gaining meaningful momentum on the project, which is highly motivating (something referred to as the progress principle).

We’re all familiar with the dreaded realization that your group project—the one you were convinced you had so much time to tackle—is now totally behind schedule.

Now you know that you can blame Parkinson’s Law for that very thing. But here’s the good news: You can do something about it. By following the above steps, you can host a successful project kickoff and set your team up for success right from the outset.

Hey, your group projects still might not get done ahead of schedule—but at least you’ll boost your chances of getting them wrapped up on time. That’s an improvement, right?

By Kate Boogaard


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