ReTHINKING the time constraint

There’s more to time constraint than meets the eye…

…and I’ve got a feeling the research is going to change project management forever. (Yeah right, you say. But that’s okay, just hang in there with me a bit).

First, there’s a little thing you and I need to acknowledge: we, in project management, rely on a lot of technical processes. We also don’t have a lot of interdisciplinary crossover outside of our own project management discipline. When we do step into other disciplines to apply it to our own, we may be limited by the fact that the other discipline is based in an operations environment. Take leadership, for example. How many books have you read about leadership that are specific to projects? What about books that are just about leadership in general? In most of these cases, the other disciplines don’t give us a project context, they just give us the context of their subject, and in most cases, they are in an operations business environment.

The interesting thing about project management crossover into other disciplines is that it may actually be the project itself that is keeping us from venturing into other worlds. This part I find particularly interesting and will be explained in our discussion below.

As anyone in our discipline knows, the time constraint is what defines a project, and it is what sets us apart from an operations environment, where there is no planned end to the organization. Recall that what defines a project is a temporary endeavor to deliver a product or service. An under-appreciated element of projects is the time constraint factor, and the inherent nature of a time constraint is the pressure of time.

Time pressure has been studied in several other disciplines, including neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics. What they have found is that time pressure causes the brain to react in various ways. There is an area of the brain that releases us from some forms of inhibition in our thinking, causing faster and less deliberative actions, impacting behavior from judgment and decision making to emotions and interactions between people. This has also been verified through brain scans.

Believe it or not, time pressure changes everything. Because of how our minds process time pressure, the following may be compromised:

  • Decision-making
  • Judgment
  • Emotions
  • Social interactions

In addition to the above, the perceived pressure of time also has the following effects:

  • Increased use of cognitive biases
  • Higher reliance on heuristics (mental rules of thumb)
  • Reliance on old habits
  • Increased use of snap judgments in decision making

Now let’s break down some of the elements mentioned earlier, regarding what time pressure does cognitively. If we just take a look at cognitive biases, for example, there are a few that really stand out and impact managing projects.

  • Optimism bias and the planning fallacy
  • The ostrich effect (also known as deliberate ignorance and strategic ignorance)
  • Sunk cost fallacy
  • Confirmation bias
  • Status quo bias
  • Ingroup bias

Time pressure also has the following effects on organizations:

  • Reduced training
  • Reduced creativity
  • Reduced agility
  • Reduced innovation

Did you note a few of those issues above? Do they sound familiar in the context of what we discussed concerning interdisciplinary crossover? Someone under the pressure of time may be less innovative, less creative, and may train less. When we are not looking to learn outside of our own little world, we do not progress as quickly, thus limiting ourselves to the knowledge within our domain. Remember, if the rest of us who are in project management are all in the same time constrained environments, we are all now sharing our limited knowledge among us. This makes for a particularly interesting recycling of the same old dishwater. We need to take time to bring in new knowledge and mature the knowledge we have.

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