Joel slouched down in his chair at the leadership team meeting as his stomach knotted. Maybe Beth, the CEO and also his boss, would skip his status update. But he knew that would only delay the inevitable. The launch of Ultraflow, their most eagerly awaited new product, was going to be late—by another quarter or more depending on which estimate you believed. And as the head of product development, Joel knew he was on the line.
Sure, there were all kinds of perfectly justifiable reasons for it being late. One of his team members had been pulled off onto an even more urgent project. Marketing had changed the specifications well after the design freeze. One of the development partners had taken longer than planned. Key end-users had been slow in providing feedback. Testing had found an unexpected problem. The list went on. But Joel also knew that neither Beth nor the board was interested in excuses.
Before he could say anything, Beth simply said, “Save the date.”
An awkward silence settled in, and Joel realized he was sitting there with his mouth wide open not knowing how to respond. The other managers, nervous for him, tried not to make eye contact.
“In case you’re wondering,” Beth continued after the awkward silence, “My youngest is getting married next year. And while it’s way too early to send out invitations, we’re notifying guests so they can save the date.”
Joel wondered where she was going with this; so did the others judging by the faces he saw around the table.
Then she continued, “I’d have to be pretty checked out not to realize that we’re going to miss the launch date for Ultraflow. And I’m not blaming any of you.”
Joel felt his tension ease a notch.
“After all, it’s my role to make sure we are all aligned on the right stuff, so to speak,” Beth continued. “Am I upset? You bet, and I expect us to move heaven and earth to get it done sooner. But it’s more than just that.”
Looking uncomfortable she said, “What I don’t understand is why our projects always look like they’re tracking fine until the last third or so – then they go off the rails when it’s too late to do anything about it. That has to change for all of our programs! I want to be able to put product launch dates on my calendar and know that I can save the date.”
Did I just dodge a bullet, thought Joel, only to get hit by a bazooka? Sure, he could lead a recovery effort to cut scope and finish closer to the due date. But, that would only cascade the delays to other projects furthering the cycle of chaos and fire drills. He knew that the real issue he had to address was the underlying problem of on-time performance.
Joel’s problem may seem complex. But it is far from rare, and I’ve found that there are usually 3 root issues at play.
1. Running too many projects at the same time–I like to say that projects are like targets and that resources are like ammunition. There are always more targets than there is ammo to shoot at them. Unfortunately, the answer is usually to spread the resources you have out among all the targets. The result is that you make a little progress towards each and finish very few. Wouldn’t you be better off conquering a handful of them much faster? Then you could put the resources gained in the meantime towards a new set of targets. Here’s a short video showing how devastating this issue can be.
2. Multitasking that creates interruptions–It’s been proven so many times now that multitasking is a myth that you have to ask why it’s still so predominant. It ties back to too many projects all expected to make a little progress. That means people have to do a little something on everything just to keep all the project stakeholders happy. Task-juggling and status updates rapidly consume real work further delaying you from hitting any targets. Everyone’s busy, but nothing’s getting done. Here’s another quick video to help underscore the problem with bad multitasking.
3. A Milestone mentality that causes procrastination–all too often planning consists of only higher level milestones but lacks the real network of critical tasks necessary for success. Then based on the high-level “plan,” teams estimate the amount of work required. Of course, they know that they’ll be spread thin and required to multitask. They also know that once they’re in the plan, everyone will treat those estimates as dates certain. So what do you think their estimates will look like? Taking all this into account, any smart professional will pad the heck out of their estimates – sometimes by a factor of 2 to 3 times the actual touch time. Yep, I’ve got a quick video on that too.
So with all of the padding these three issues add to your projects, why do they still not finish on time? During execution, the padding actually encourages resources to procrastinate until the last possible minute in what’s called the student syndrome. It’s not that people aren’t working; it’s just that they’re working on something else. And in what’s called sandbagging, they make sure their task doesn’t finish more than a day or two early because they know that will become the “new normal.”
Essentially, all the padding built in to protect the milestones—easily equal to or greater than the work itself—end up wasted on procrastination of one sort or another. Then as soon as any real problem creeps up, the due date is left unprotected and the project ends up delayed.
Frustrating? Yes. Hopeless? Far from it. Because there is one thing Joel can propose that will help with all three. Simply limit the number of programs underway to match the team’s bandwidth.
I’ve had clients who decide to limit themselves to 5 projects. I’ve had others who have used a dynamic tool like Exepron to manage it. They all saw similar results – a significant increase in the number of projects completed and with far more completed on time. It’s just math to know that if you allow twice as many projects to run vs. your capacity, then everything will take twice as long. But it’s actually much worse when you add on the multitasking loss.
So whatever else you do, find a way to control the amount of work you let into execution at one time. The easiest way to get started is to download our free AcceleTrak™ NPD Bandwidth Accelerator. An Excel template that refines the virtual drum approach to include project size/complexity and allows you to build a mini-portfolio. You can use it right away to see how loaded your portfolio is and then take action to accelerate your execution.