Author: Fergus

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Why Do Our Projects Take So Long? Because We Don’t Care Enough

Picture this. There is a small / medium-sized high tech project running in your organization. Let’s say it’s an average of ten people for six months. In other words it’s five person-years. While costs vary considerably, the typical cost of such a project in Western Europe or the U.S. might be in the range $ 12,000 – $ 15,000 per day.

I think you’ll agree that such projects fail all the time. And bigger ones and smaller ones. And, if not fail, then run late or over budget (sometimes dramatically so.)

Now imagine that, instead of the project costing say, $ 12,000 per day it was costing ten times that. Or twenty times. Or fifty times. Would you behave any differently than you do?

Well, why don’t we look at an industry where projects do cost ten or twenty of fifty times that per day and see what we can learn?

The movie industry is one where very expensive projects are planned and executed. While there have been famous examples of movies that have gone spectacularly over-budget (Cleopatra, Ryan’s Daughter, Heaven’s Gate, Waterworld) these days, movies get shot with a precision that would keep any CPA happy.

A couple of years ago, I heard an interview with Phyllida Lloyd, the woman who directed the movie, Mama Mia. In the course of the interview she happened to say, ‘It was a seventy nine day shoot’. Now, when’s the last time you heard one of your project managers say, ‘It was a seventy nine day project’? The language used is interesting because you get the impression that if you asked the makers of Mama Mia what they did on day forty two, for example, they could tell you. And they could tell you. Because long before they began shooting the movie, somebody figured it out. Contrast that with our kinds of projects where we’re often slapping our forehead and saying, ‘How could it be Friday already and where did the week go?’

Filmmakers are completely focused on (a) spending each day wisely and (b) keeping the number of days as short as possible. There’s a very simple reason for this. It’s because shooting movies is so expensive. Filmmakers care because of the huge expense that any little delay or wasted time can involve.

So they spend their days wisely. The most obvious way we can see this is when we look at the way filmmakers plan their projects. Filmmakers build what is known as a shooting schedule. You can think of a shooting schedule as being like a giant spreadsheet. In the rows of the spreadsheet are the days of the shoot. The first series of columns contain a column for every member of the cast from the major stars down to the smallest bit part actor. Essentially, an ‘x’ in a cell means that we need that particular actor on that particular day.

After the cast, there are another series of columns for all the other things that might be needed – props, special effects, animals, vehicles and so on. Then each cell contains exactly what we need on that day under that heading.

In essence – they plan at the day level of detail. They view each day as being precious and irreplaceable. Once gone, that day will never come round again. Contrast that with our kinds of projects. We build a not particularly well-estimated Gantt Chart using something like Microsoft Project and then hurry on to start doing the fun stuff – the real work. Often, the best that can be said about such plans is that they are optimistic hopes for the future. We look at them wistfully and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out like that?’

Filmmakers care about their days. We don’t care enough.

So if you work in an industry where time means money, where every day the project runs early is money in the bank, then plan it at the day level of detail. Care about what happens to your days. Spend them wisely. They are irreplaceable.

Multitasking is disastrous for productivity – so why does everybody do it?

Multitasking is disastrous for productivity – so why does everybody do it?

I’ve consulted with more than 500 companies and organizations since I started my first company, ETP ( in 1992. I can’t think of one of them that doesn’t engage in multitasking i.e. where a pool of people is spread across and works on a series of projects / activities (‘things’).

Generally then, every person multitasks i.e. spends time on more than one thing. And I’m not talking about just two or three things. It’s much more likely to be 7-10 things. I’ve seen people multitasking across twenty things.

But multitasking is catastrophic for productivity as the following simple example shows.

Let’s say I’m running a project.  The project consists of a number of jobs that have to be done. Let’s say one of those jobs is estimated to be 10 person-days (PD) work. Charlie’s assigned to do it and Charlie is not multitasking – he’s available full-time, 5 days per week (dpw). Then the job will take two weeks.

Now suppose Charlie is multitasking and he’s only available 1 dpw. Then the job will take ten weeks.

But there’s more.

There is now the additional time involved in Charlie putting the 10 PD job down, picking it up again a week later and getting his head back around it again, back to where it was when he put it down. (There isn’t a lot of research in this area but google on ‘the cost of task switching’ for some representative figures.) Based on this research, an estimate of 15 minutes to get his head back to where it was wouldn’t be unreasonable. So that’s an additional 10 [weeks] x 15 minutes that has to be added on to the initial 10 PD.

And that’s not all. There’s another catch. The 1 dpw that Charlie is giving to our project is – most likely – not going to be one full day, as in, for example, Monday. It’s much more likely to be something like this: a couple of hours on Monday, half a day on Tuesday, nothing at all on Wednesday, an hour for a meeting on Thursday and then a bit of a flurry on Friday to hit some mini-deadline or milestone. So instead of the initial 10 put-down-pick-ups, we’re much more likely to have 4-5 put-down-pick-ups per week. Over 10 weeks, that’s 40-50 put-down-pick-ups. At 15 minutes per put-down-pick-up, that’s 10 – 12½ person-hours added on to the initial 10 PD – so this is very non-trivial.

But let’s pretend this doesn’t happen – if only because we’re not quite sure how to measure it – though clearly it does. The difference between Charlie working 5 dpw (not multitasking) and Charlie working 1 dpw (multitasking) doesn’t seem that serious. On a big project you might not even notice it. Hey, on a small project, with Charlie sitting beside you or just over the partition, you’d see him on his computer, making phone calls, going to meetings, you might think ‘Charlie’s doing my stuff’. Yet, this one small thing – the difference between 5 dpw (not multitasking) and 1 dpw (multitasking) – can potentially cause an 8 week delay on this project [the difference between 2 weeks and 10 weeks].

And remember this is just one job in your project. Is this happening on all jobs that Charlie is doing on your project? Of course it is. And is this happening on other jobs on your project? Most likely it is, since most everybody is multitasking.

The resulting stretching / delay on your project can be colossal. 

So why does everybody do it?

Is it because nobody has thought about the problem? Or people think there’s no alternative? Or what?

Because of course there is an alternative. And it’s this:

1.    Prioritize the list of projects that have to be done.

2.    Flood the most important project with people who are not multitasking (or who are doing as little multitasking as humanly possible) and aim to get the project done as quickly as possible.

3.    Working down the list, do this for the following projects until you run out of people.

4.    Don’t start the remaining projects until people become available from projects as they complete. The remaining projects will still be done quicker than if you had been multitasking.

5.    Do this and you’ll be amazed at the quantum leap in productivity you’ll achieve.