Project Estimations and Parkinson’s Law

“How many more could be done?” I wondered. The figures were dancing around in my head, and I didn’t need to start drawing a chart to see a massive improvement in productivity had been achieved. In fact, it had doubled. It didn’t take long though before another train of thought emerged, “Why didn’t I do this sooner? Think of all the waste!”

One of my earliest projects had been to set up a service to gather business information via tele-researchers operating out of a small call centre in Walsall. There was no sales involved, just information gathering. I had calculated that for the service to be viable, each researcher needed to capture a minimum of 70 business records per day. I set a reasonable target of 100 per day to achieve a bonus. I anticipated that approx. 125 calls per day would be needed to achieve this figure, based on my own experience of carrying out that role. People joined the team and started hitting the 100 per day target within about three days as confidence and technique improved.

Then one day I needed to bring in some agency staff as one of the team had left at short notice. The person the agency sent came very highly recommended and immediately grasped the nature of the work, the scripts and data capture methods. But I forgot to mention the target of 100 records per day. At the end of the day I checked her worksheets and found she had gathered 214 records. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing and double checked the work, certain that some sort of cheating had occurred. But no, she was honest and the outputs were good. The next day she returned and produced over 200 records again. This time I made sure to spend more time in her part of the office to understand what she was doing differently. Her technique was simple – she just made twice as many calls as anyone else! Her pause between calls was minimal, she captured details from the call directly into her spreadsheet, she engaged in less conversations with colleagues. She was just very focused on the task before her.

Eventually the permanent team members started to hit the 200 per day target too as they saw a new unofficial target emerging. In the following months as other team members left (this sort of work does have a high staff turnover), I replaced them with agency staff but and experimented a little with the target. 300 was achievable but it seemed to take a heavy toll on the researchers who would not stay for long. 250 could be hit fairly frequently. So I set the minimal target per day as 200, with a daily bonus for anyone hitting 250. As I did so, I reflected back on my own experience as a researcher and wondered why I had never come close to 200 records per day.

In 1955, The Economist published an essay by Cyril Northcote Parkinson that featured the phrase “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The phrase went on to become known as “Parkinson’s Law”. In the case of my research team, because I told them that they had a day to complete 100 records, it took a day to do so. If I had to told them to it would take a week to do a 100 records, it would have taken a week. Without realising, I had imposed a limit on their productivity by setting such a low target.

In a similar experience, when I set myself a target of a month to get my house repainted it took a month – with all of the activity taking place in the last week. From a productivity viewpoint, did I take a month to decorate the house or a week? Did I hit my target, or should I have penalised myself for failing to be able to decorate three other houses in that month? (Just kidding, nobody would want me to decorate their house!)

This supports the need to apply scrutiny to project planning estimations. Whilst t-shirt sizing and rough estimations can be applied when carrying out long term forecasts; when starting the project it is sensible to carry out planning workshops and apply some science to the approach. I’ve been critical in the past of sponsors and other stakeholders trying to drive down estimations – but that has been because they were going beyond a reasonable position. If a suitable method has been used, and reasonable tolerances are in place, then the project manager can be afforded some trust. That does not eliminate the need for scrutiny. The intention is not to try catching out the project manager, but rather to help them and the business deliver a successful project in the shortest time and lowest cost.

As I was writing this, I glanced over the room at the laundry basket, overflowing with clothes needing to be ironed. I wondered how long it would take to iron them all.

Meh, about a year…

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