Schedule or Fantasy?

“Often what looks like a perfectly good schedule turns out to be a fantasy – a wishful projection for how we might spend our very limited time.” – Bruce Tulgan in Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

As I was reading Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, I came upon a section that discusses the need to teach Generation Y employees how to create a realistic schedule. For instance, page 108 says: “Schedules are useful tools only if they reflect accurate planning. Often what looks like a perfectly good schedule turns out to be a fantasy – a wishful projection for how we might spend our very limited time. Before you can make a realistic plan, you have to know how long each task is actually going to take. That sounds obvious, but we’ve seen over and over again in our research that Gen Yers miss deadlines because they are missing this basic step.”

This piece got me thinking about a job I had a decade ago as the assistant (“Project Management Assistant”) to the head of software engineering at a tech company. I had to run around to every developer and engineer in the company to dissect their (often ludicrous) project plans. I wasn’t dealing specifically with Generation Y, but the lessons are still applicable.

There was a rule I had to enforce that no item on the worklist could be longer than three days; so, if there was such an item, the developer had to break it into smaller items to satisfy this insistent 22 year-old who was more determined to do his job than to make friends with the engineering team.

What normally happened was that something that was ten days on the initial submission would, when expressed as individual tasks, take something like 18 or 20 days. The math went something like this:

10 days

= 6 + 4

= (4 + 4) + (2 + 3 + 1)

= ((2 + 3) + (2 + 3 + 2)) + (2 + 3 + 1)

= 18 days

Why the big difference? By enforcing the rule, I forced people to actually think about what they were doing in detail, and it was usually more complex than they’d thought upon initial estimation. By thinking, they realized that there were more components, and testing would take some time, and they needed to account for integration, etc. As a result, we got more accurate schedules. Even if on the surface it seemed like project plans had ballooned, the reality is that the actual execution time didn’t change. It was a useful exercise from my perspective, too, and one that I’ve carried since.

This next part, from page 109, reminded me a bit of Obliquity, but explains how to deal with the reality of uncertainty: “Sometimes Gen Yers resist planning because they are so certain that things will change anyway. In an uncertain world, what’s the point in planning? It’s worth explaining to them that one of the hidden benefits of plans and schedules is that they can be used by managers to provide employees with more flexibility while still strictly enforcing deadlines. But also let Gen Yers know you understand that no matter how great the plan, plans are always subject to real-life interruptions. Emergencies, wild-goose chases, and distractions often spring up and disrupt the progress of a perfectly realistic plan. Teach Gen Yers not to be thrown off when real-life interruptions veer them off course from their well-made plans. Teach them to pay close attention to real life and be prepared to revise and adjust their plans every step of the way.”

“Emergencies, wild-goose chases, and distractions often spring up and disrupt the progress of a perfectly realistic plan. Teach Gen Yers not to be thrown off when real-life interruptions veer them off course.” – Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

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Posted in Books, Careers, Leadership, Management
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