Category Archives: Project Management

Procrastination and C. Northcote Parkinson

I was sitting here thinking about what my next topic would be, but I kept putting off getting started. Maybe it was because I just didn’t feel the urgency of writing a new article yet. Some of the topics and articles seem to flow so easily that I begin to think that I might actually be getting the hang of this writing thing. Then others, like this one seem to require significant effort in order to perform their extraction and conversion into cogent thought. When that happens, I do the only logical thing. I procrastinate.

The fact that I was just sitting here trying to avoid writing something got me to thinking of the story of John Lennon when he was in the throes of writing the classic Beatles tune “Nowhere Man”: He said that he was “…lying there trying to write a song and was getting nowhere, man” and it hit him. The rest is musical genius and history. If I should ever be so fortunate as to possess one tenth the talent for writing that he had in his little finger, in my entire body I would count myself lucky. None the less it did give rise to my self examination of why I was having any sort of writers block.

Those of you that know me have often stated that usually I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. You should be smiling at my difficulty at finding something, in this case the right thing to say.

What I did come up with is that C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of “Parkinson”s Law” was correct when he postulated:

         “Work expands to fill available time.”

The logical corollary, which I will modestly dub: “Gobeli’s Corollary” is:

“Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work done by reducing available time for it to expand into.”

Think about it. I believe it explains a lot about who we are and why so many of the businesses, and for that matter so many of the political institutions that we have, operate the way they do. It is also probably at least partly responsible for the deadline mentality we seem to have evolved to. If you know that work will expand to fill all available time that it is given, the obvious solution to getting more work done is to provide a deadline that gives less time for each assignment to get done in.

I think we are also all familiar with the relationship between procrastination and “cramming”. We learned it early, probably in high school or college. Instead of spending a little time each day studying, we save it all for the last day or two before the exam. Why study every day when we can study really hard at the end and probably get the same result. We seem to have evolved this concept into our working structures now as well. We have even codified it as an accepted method of reducing the time required to compleat our projects. It’s called “Crashing”. We no longer work on our assignments ahead of time, or a little bit each day. Instead we wait till the deadline looms and then try to kick it directly into high gear.

We also see this type of work process with our current federal legislature. They are so good at procrastinating, and have recognized their own predilection for it, that they have had to create their own either artificial or real deadlines in order to get anything done. As a result we seem to be lurching from one crisis (read: deadline) to the next. This process does seem to keep the talking heads on the various news channels happy as they now have a continuous flow of issues to talk about, but is probably not the most efficient way to get things done.

I once worked a company where they had evolved a similar culture. They knew that they were excellent at managing in a crisis. The only problem was that they evolved to a point where everything had to be a crisis in order to get anything done. Being in a continual crisis mode does have a tendency to wear out the team. To think of it in sports terms, imagine a football team running their “Two Minute” offense for every play of every game for the entire season. It might work for a while, but the wear and tear on the team will eventually cause them to break down.

Gobeli’s Corollary would have us believe that by procrastinating, we would actually end up having to do less work. We seem to believe that doing two days of non-stop hard work is less work than doing an hour or so of less intense work across the term of a two week assignment. That logic just escapes me. For a culture that loves to multi-task while on conference calls, we seem to eschew the opportunity to multi-task on our longer term work assignments. Go figure.

I know I probably sound like a broken record (an interesting allusion since for all intents and purposes records are largely extinct and have been replaced by CDs and MP3s) but I am convinced that a lot of this crisis process is the result of our recognition and reward structures in business. Since we are largely working in “crisis” mode due to looming deadlines, we seek out those who can work well under this kind of pressure. I have referred to them in the past as fire fighters.

These are the “go to” staffs that are relied on to meet the deadline. They receive the recognition and rewards for being able to deliver in the clutch. It seems that those who practice “fire prevention” by taking steps ahead of time to complete their assignments in a non-crisis mode, do not garner as much management attention and perceived respect. The net result is that it doesn’t seem to pay to do the job efficiently and ahead of time. If you want to get noticed, you need a crisis.

And how do you get a crisis? You procrastinate.

So while Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill available time and Gobeli’s Corollary says that Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work needed by reducing available time, there might also be a logical extension here regarding the relative rewards associated with “crisis work” as opposed to doing the same work in an orderly, non-crisis oriented manner. Perhaps the corollary should also incorporate an extended axiom:

“Work becomes more visible to and seems to be more valued by managers as proximity to the deadline grows”

That would play well with the observation that managers seem to recognize the contributions of fire fighters more so than the same contributions associated with those who perform the same work in non-crisis situations, and also explains why so many people seem to procrastinate in doing their assignments until they approach crisis proportions. It has been my experience that business leaders neither value the work of fire fighters more nor procrastinate to crisis levels. They get the work done on time because they know that they do not need to create crises of their own. There will be enough business issues for them to deal with.

Wow. And I got all this because I didn’t yet feel the urgency in having to come up with an article topic and getting written down. I suppose I should also say that I actually had two or three other articles already written, and though I was procrastinating there was probably a good reason why I wasn’t feeling the urgency to get this one done. I guess this early preparation thing can be a two edged sword.

Business Oxymorons

Every time I get a memo, directive or request from management, or anyone else for that matter, that causes me to shake my head, I put it in a file where I can review it and smile at a later date. I have to do that because sometimes it is almost impossible to believe in, let alone laugh at many of the documents and directives when they are actually issued. It seems that it is only on reasonable reflection that the humor associated with the document can be appreciated. Over the years I have amassed a fairly large file of what I like to refer to as management “Business Oxymorons”. Here are some of my favorites.

Process Simplification:

Process simplification has long been a target for cost cutting and efficiency increasing projects and teams. Regardless of how the business is structured, or what processes there may be in place, this is an area that can and will receive incremental focus. My favorite approach here was when I received a 36 chart presentation deck detailing the process we would all be using going forward for corporate process simplification. That is correct. It took 36 charts to detail out how we were going to simplify things. Needless to say, I had a suggestion for the first process to focus on for future simplification.

Announcing / Assigning a New Team to Track Cost Reduction:

Like process simplification, cost reduction is also always a favorite topic for management attention. Indeed cost reduction should be an ongoing focus for every business. The point here is the activity of cost reduction should be the focus. The idea is to reduce costs. The tracking of cost reduction doesn’t actually reduce any costs. It could be argued that one of the best ways to start reducing costs would be to get rid of all the teams whose only responsibility is to track cost reductions, since they are actually an unproductive incremental cost to the business. I always thought that the people who were implementing cost reductions were also capable of tracking cost reductions too.

Unprofitable “Strategic” Business:

I wrote an entire post dedicated to this concept a few weeks ago. Sales teams want to sell things. That is what they are supposed to do. Customers usually want the lowest price possible for the goods and services that they are going to purchase. Sales teams try to get their customers the lowest price possible, sometimes by describing the business opportunity as “Strategic”. Getting requests to discount product and service prices to the point of unprofitability because it is strategic to the company to get this business has always been an interesting exercise in logic for me. How can bringing in any incremental unprofitable business be of benefit to a company, let alone strategic to it?

Multi-Tasking Equals Productivity:

We are all continually asked to do more. That is the nature of business. How we go about it is the key to our effectiveness. I know many people who pride themselves on their ability to be on conference calls, do their email and converse on their computer’s instant messaging system at the same time. I also notice that these people are usually so busy that they never get anything actually accomplished or completed. Productivity is the measure of things that are completed, not the measurement of the number of things being done concurrently. It is similar to the idea about the difference between work and progress. Work can be a great deal of splashing around in a pool. Progress is actually swimming somewhere.

Measurement is the Solution:

It seems that whenever there issues in a business, the first thing management requests are a brand new set of metrics and reports regarding the already identified issues. Metrics and measurements are key tools and sources of data for any manager and business. They help us keep score. They help identify where issues may lie and where performance may need to be improved. Measurements very seldom tell us how to improve performance, only that against some sort of scale that performance needs to be improved. More measurements or more detailed measurements may not help this situation. It is the decisions that are made and the actions that are taken in the business as a result of the measurement information that are the solution. Business measurements are a ways to a means, not a means unto themselves. The 80 / 20 rule truly does apply to measurements and data, and the idea of trying to measure your way out of a performance issue rarely works.

Global Projects:

The world is a very big place and the way business is conducted varies significantly from place to place in it. Global tools, programs and platforms, while always a desirable goal are almost always problematic when it comes to implementation, but that has never seemed to stop the drive towards them. Part of this issue seems to be in that global projects focus on trying to remove the differences between business regions instead of leveraging the similarities that the regions have. By the time you modify the tool, platform or project to take into account every regional business difference, you usually have a uniform solution that is so large, complex, expensive and unmanageable that it is worse than the separate and discrete capabilities it replaced. My father would have called this phenomenon the starting of a vast project with something along the lines of a half vast idea.

These are just a few of the business oxymorons that I have in my file. I am sure there are others that I will bring out in the future. I believe it is the irony associated with the approach as it applies to what was obviously the desired solution that causes me to share them here. It appears that at least in some circumstances it is true what has been said about good intentions. It also doesn’t hurt to find the humor in it.

It Ain’t Over Til…..

All projects, plans and strategies are implemented with the best of intentions. We get started. We pay attention and we follow up. Then something else happens and we have to work on it. Then another thing occurs, and another, and another. In short business happens, and we lose track of that which we were following.


It is easy to assume, or hope, that someone will step up and make sure that nothing gets dropped. You need to remember that the someone responsible for that is you.


We are in a multi-tasking world, but that does not relieve us of the responsibility of finishing what we start. It does not matter how well a product, project or plan is worked if it is not brought to conclusion. It is the end game, the result that is important and what is ultimately measured. Just as new products, projects and programs get started, old ones must be completed.


Bringing something to completion or closure is a way of measuring progress. Everything else is activity. We have a tendency to sometimes confuse activity with progress. I think Yogi Berra was right. It ain’t over till it’s over, and it falls to the leader to make sure that it is in fact done.