3 Fundamental rules project managers should use when planning

by Salah Bugazia

Did you know there are some fundamental rules for project managers when planning? Effective planning is the foundation and starting point for any successful initiative. As the saying goes: “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Planning is an essential part of all project management methodologies. While most methodologies include specific tools and techniques project managers can, and should, leverage when creating and maintaining their project plans, there are a few general rules that should be taken into account and are not explicitly spelled out in project planning material. This article outlines three rules, based on observations by insightful management practitioners that I encourage every project manager to keep in mind when planning and managing their projects.

Parkinson’s Law

This law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This statement was part of an article published in The Economist in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British author, based on his experience working in the British civil service. Parkinson’s Law notes that the time you estimate for a specific task will likely be used in full even if the task could actually be completed in a shorter period of time. The same applies to meetings. A meeting planned for one hour will likely go on for the whole hour even when the planned objective of the meeting was achieved within the first thirty or forty-five minutes. In most cases, if you give someone four hours to complete a task, they will likely spend at least the full four hours on the task even if it could be completed in two hours. People will find things to do, which may be useful but not necessarily essential, to fill the whole time allotted for the task. Parkinson’s Law can be leveraged in planning by taking the padding out of individual task estimates and challenging project team members to be creative and explore ways to complete their tasks within the targeted shorter timeline. However, Parkinson’s Law should not be used to set unachievable goals. Additionally, project managers should keep a contingency buffer for the whole project to be used in cases where the assumed estimates for individual tasks were too ambitious. This approach is one of the techniques used by the Critical Chain method.

Student Syndrome

This term was coined by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, an author, and originator of the Theory of Constraints (TOC), in his book, The Critical Chain. Goldratt used this term to refer to project team members pushing work to the last moments and working at a slower and more relaxed pace at the beginning of a task, similar to what students do by pushing work on their assignments or studying for an exam until the last day before the exam or the assignment’s due date. It is not possible to eliminate the Student Syndrome completely, but there are techniques a project manager can leverage to keep it under control: Allocating shorter time estimates to tasks and keeping a buffer as a backup plan; identifying milestones for completing specific tasks and monitoring progress against these milestones with the project team on a regular basis; and creating shorter, more manageable tasks to uncover Student Syndrome symptoms, address them early on and prevent a larger impact on the project schedule.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law basically points out that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. It was coined after Captain Edward A. Murphy, an engineer who said something along these lines when working on a project at Edwards Airforce Base in 1949. What this means is to always plan for the worst. You can hope for the best and assume best-case scenarios, but not without having a backup plan and maintaining a contingency buffer for when things go wrong or when tasks take longer than estimated. Also, this makes risk management even more critical. Start with the assumption that things will go wrong and your project is already at risk. Keep your eyes on the long run and plan ahead for potential surprises. Make risk management part of your ongoing project management routine and encourage your project team and all stakeholders to proactively lookout for risks and work together to brainstorm options for managing risks.

These three rules are based on very insightful observations, and many of us can relate to these based on our own experience. Keeping these rules in mind not only helps with better planning but also increases the chances of project success. Such rules instill a more thoughtful and proactive approach to managing projects, anticipating risks, and planning for these risks and surprises ahead of time.


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