Common Project Manager Mistakes: #4 Murphy vs. Parkinson

PMCatvsDogBLOGsb10069719We all know Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s thanks to our deep and abiding faith in Murphy’s Law that many of us, and most of the folks on our teams, always add a bit of “padding” to our estimates. We’ve got to allow for Murphy’s impact. Though we joke a lot about Murphy’s Law, we have learned through consistent and often difficult experiences that something will not go as planned so we had better build in some safety to give us a chance to deal with the problems.

We’ve also learned through experience, or from our preparation for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification exam, that risk management is necessary, proactive and applied throughout the life cycle of every project. Through our attention to identifying, analyzing and planning response for risks — a risk reserve is created for the project. The risk reserve, comprised of the contingency reserve for the known unknowns and the management reserve for the unknown unknowns, represents extra money and time that we expect to need to address the inaccuracies in our plans. Now, nobody would suggest (least of all, me) that we should stop doing risk management or that we could successfully manage projects without a risk reserve. But aren’t we building ourselves a new problem?

Think about it. We pad our estimates to account for the potential impacts of Murphy’s Law. We consider our estimates an area of risk (uncertainty) in the project and create risk reserve to accommodate the risk impacts. And, we create risk responses, most of which create new activity that is integrated into the project plan, which means that we have estimated (and padded those estimates) the new activities. So, now we have a situation in which we have multiple layers of safety margin embedded in our plan for getting the project work done; and we wonder why the project takes so long.

The problem, of course, is that the entire safety margin we have created to deal with Murphy’s Law doesn’t change the fact that, according to the 2012 CHAOS Report from the Standish Group, 61% of IT projects are not completed successfully. Why not? Of course there are lots of reasons, but prominent among them is the impact from Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is not as well recognized as Murphy’s Law but the two go hand in hand. Parkinson’s Law says that “work will always expand to fill available time.” What?! That would mean that all of those layers of safety that we have embedded in our plans aren’t actually improving the chances for our success. How can that be?

The fact is that the more time we give folks to do something the more likely it becomes that they will engage in procrastination, “apple polishing” or both. So it is important for us, as we plan our projects, to remember to account for the impacts of both Murphy and Parkinson in the plan. Like most things in project management, this means we have to look for balance. We need a planning approach that will include adequate safety margin to deal with the negative impacts of Murphy’s Law, but without compounding that safety margin to the point that it invites more negative impacts from Parkinson’s Law. How can we manage to plan for enough safety but not too much and also keep plans challenging without becoming too optimistic?

The key to balance lies in clarity of purpose. Are we going to compensate for Murphy within our estimates, or are we going to address estimating as an area of risk? Are we going to rely on single point, single source, expert judgment estimating, or are we going to employ a variety of estimating techniques based upon how much we know about the activities? Are we going to accept the assumption that the initial estimates we created are the best we can do, or are we going to prepare manage our stakeholder’s to expect routine revision of estimates as the project proceeds?

Balancing Murphy and Parkinson means that we must build realism into our estimates, but do so without removing the urgency to “get busy” in the process. It also means that we must keep our estimates within the realm of realistically achievable, and avoid delusional optimism. Our estimates must account for the things we know will inevitably affect them — like productivity rate, expertise level, competing demands (like other projects or operational work) — but they should still remain challenging enough to demand the team members attention. Murphy’s impact is eroded whenever we use multiple sources for gathering our estimates, particularly when at least one of those sources is lessons learned from past projects. Additionally, having multiple estimators (assuming those estimators have appropriate expertise for what is being estimated) will ensure that a broader range of direct experience is included in the estimates.

As for Parkinson’s impacts, this can be a bit tricky since most of us will tend to over-estimate our own ability and under-estimate the effort required to get something done. We need to make sure that our estimators give us at least an estimate of what they expect and the best they can do. I find it helpful to ask for estimates within the context of a level of confidence in successful accomplishment. We never want to accept optimistic estimates with less than 50% likelihood of success; we want to know most of the work can be done efficiently from the perspective of the subject matter expert estimator. Since Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill available time, we need to limit the amount of safety in our estimates to control this effect. Instead of building safety into each work estimate, Parkinson’s Law would suggest that it’s better to plan work optimistically, but add safety at those key points where it will make a real difference, like at the end of the project. This sort of concentration of safety at key points allows us to manage the project without the tempting distraction to focus on each incident of work expansion or missed task deadline. Focusing on safety at the intersections of critical and non-critical paths, mandatory milestone, and at the end of the project encourages us to manage from a “big picture” point of view and helps us to recognize the difference between normal performance variations and those that actually require intervention.

The bottom line is this: Murphy and Parkinson are present in every project but they don’t have to be spoilers. Murphy is controlled by creating a safety margin in our plans, but by focusing that safety at the points that matter the most, the mandatory milestones and the end of the project. Parkinson usually only becomes a problem when our concern for Murphy creates an opportunity. Control for Parkinson comes from separating the safety we plan from the individual activities and concentrating it at important points, as described already. Our best defense for Parkinson, however, is the use of realistically optimistic estimates in the plan to keep the team focused and eliminating the “there’s plenty of time” notion from their perception of the plan.

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