Working In Uncertainty

Why don't people do what they say they will?
(Risk management of part-time projects)



Most writing about projects is based on the assumption that a project has a project team whose job is to do the project and nothing else – except perhaps other projects.

However, in some lines of work it is much more common to find that many in the team still have demanding jobs and a ‘project’ has been thrown on top. However much you try to pin people down with project plans, senior sponsorship, action points, milestones, and so on it is still common for actions not to be done.

Often these efforts are not called projects. They may be regular meetings set up to try to make something happen that otherwise would not, such as an improvement initiative.

If your job involves trying to make things happen without direct line authority then this kind of project will be all too familiar.

Working parties are commonly anything but. Progress, when any is made, can be painfully slow. Motivation slips. Expectations slump. Attendance at meetings declines. Deadlines come and go. Instead of a cooperative team driving the project forward, with individuals identifying and taking actions as needed to make results happen, the project becomes a harrowing exercise in trying to pin actions on people and then shame them into completing those actions.

Why exactly do things go wrong so often and is there anything that can be done that works?

The issues

Competition for time is a big factor, but not the only reason why these part-time projects tend to struggle. Moreover, competition for time is not as straightforward as one might think.

People on projects full time tend to be personally motivated to see the project move forward. People for whom a project is a minor part of their job may be much more interested in making sure the project does not interfere with their main work.

They may be involved simply to know what is going on, or to stop things that would be against their main interests.

People on part-time projects remain in the pecking orders of their usual department, leaving the project leader typically with limited direct authority over people in the project. Meetings tend to be democratic to a fault, as people try to avoid inter-departmental friction and maintain relationships needed for more important work.

Part-time projects are very vulnerable to competition for time. When people are on a project full time they typically try to keep busy. If they are held up by some dependency they try to find other things to get on with. If an activity finishes earlier than expected they tend to get on with the next thing immediately, knowing that they may not be so fortunate with other activities.

In contrast, when someone is prevented from doing something in a part-time project they respond by switching to something from their main job, or another project. If an activity in the part-time project finishes early they go back to their main job instead of getting on with the next activity, so time gained is lost and the only possible outcome is slippage against expectations.

Part-time projects often involve regular meetings. If an obstacle arises people tend to stop making progress and wait for the next meeting to raise it and look for a solution. There is no sense of urgency. These little delays contribute to the overall slippage.

A person's main job also tends to dominate the space where they work. Their files, desk, diary, post-it notes, wall planner, in-tray, e-mails, social contacts, and so on are nearly all concerned with their main job, not the part-time project. We tend to work on what is prompting us, so the part-time project is easily forgotten.

Finally, research suggests that multi-tasking is inherently inefficient and that humans perform better when they do not have to keep picking up and putting down tasks. This is an important theme in the Critical Chain method of project management.

In summary, the main issues are:

Main issues
Competition for time
Unhelpful personal motivations
Lack of autocracy
Lack of urgency
Lack of prompts

The usual techniques

The most common approaches to trying to exert some control without authority all try to formalise commitments to action.

  • Recording action points from meetings in minutes and tracking them in subsequent meetings.

  • Listing recommended and accepted actions.

  • Describing actions in terms of deliverables.

  • Having a formal plan and asking about progress against the plan.

When these don't work the next recourse is to try to get more senior people to exert some pressure and give the project more priority, instructing team members to try harder.

As everyone knows, senior backing is important for projects, but in practice it waxes and wanes, so most projects have to survive through long periods without senior drive.

How effective are these methods? We think they must be effective. After all, if they did not work they would not be so commonly used. Besides, although there are people who don't keep their promises that doesn't apply to you and me. Right?

Right! But that's only true if you discount, to be fair, situations where we've been held up by someone else, had to attend to something everyone agrees to be more important and urgent, and where the original choice of action was a poor one. It's also hard to say what might have been the outcome on all the actions where our deadline was relaxed because of delays elsewhere.

A promise is a promise, but if needs change we have to be responsive. Giving priority to a project simply because we gave its promise earlier would be irrational.

Some other techniques

At the very least I hope you can agree that formalising commitments to action is not a complete solution. So let's look at some other things that can be done.

Technique Related advice
Identify actions most likely to be taken.

The starting point is perhaps to be more realistic about whether and when actions will be completed, and to what level of quality. That does not mean blanket pessimism. It is more useful to go into enough detail to identify who is most likely to do their actions, and what actions are most likely to get done.

For example, there may be ten people on the team, two of whom are virtually full time on it. Clearly we should expect far more from them and steer actions in their direction where possible.

Similarly, if there are actions that people enthusiastically volunteer to do these are more likely to get done than those the group thinks are a good thing and that then get allocated to the person who seems best placed to do them.

To judge the likelihood of action, consider risk factors that may have a strong effect:

  • Pressures, needs, and drives: This includes pressure from other people, worries about job security, drive for recognition, and rewards. These may be helping or hindering, strong or weak.

  • Beliefs: This includes beliefs about how the world works (i.e. the cause-effect relationships involved) and about whether the action can be done and, if done, whether it will have the effect expected and bring the rewards desired.

  • Capabilities: including skill, energy, and tools. (But excluding time, which is covered by the next point.)

  • Competing activities: These are the factors that are particularly unhelpful in part-time projects.

This analysis of what is likely to get done, by whom, and why, allows you to do some useful things:

Favour plans that involve actions that have a good chance of being carried out. Also think about alternative actions that would have a better chance of being carried out, and use them.
Make fall back plans for when actions are not carried out, or otherwise build a project plan that can cope with high rates of failure on individual actions.

Concentrating on rapid, small deliveries is a good way to do this. Also try to put tasks in parallel so that if any one of them is done and successful then the overall project makes progress, even though others have not been done.

See where a change in conditions would help increase the likelihood of actions.

For example, perhaps you can reduce the priority of competing actions, at least for tasks at greatest risk of not being done otherwise.

Identify where a part-time project is not likely to bring results and full-time commitment, perhaps with a co-located team and project pecking order, is needed to get the job done.

You might have to make do with few people, but still might benefit from greater focus and motivation.

Craft actions that are efficient.

A way to improve the chances of actions being done is to spend time crafting actions that are efficient i.e. easy to do yet still effective. This means they are better able to compete with an individual's other priorities.

Craft actions that are advantageous for the individual.

Sometimes it is possible to craft actions that are not only efficient, but also advantageous for the individual – perhaps even their best course. This is the ideal situation where the part-time project is generating ideas for actions for participants that help them in their main jobs, quickly and surely. The project becomes a source of solutions, rather than extra burdens.

Sell actions to those who must do them.

What is needed is not smooth sales patter but an action that really is a good idea for the person to do, then some good questions and prompts to help the person see how the action works in their favour.

Get actions woven into the thinking, plans, work place, and schedule of the individuals involved.

It is one thing for someone to commit to an action. It is quite another for them to actually make an entry in their diary, or see how that action benefits them or their department, or understand why the action is the easiest course for them. This is where you can put more prompts into a person's place of work.

Schedule events.

Extra urgency can sometimes be created, artificially, by arranging events at which progress, or lack of it, will be very visible. Typically this is a meeting, presentation, or delivery of a document. The event should be something that demands preparation and where the preparation is what needs to be done.

Exploit competitiveness.

Artificial motivation can also be created if there is competitiveness between team members or their respective departments. Who will finish first? Whose work is best? If participants see the competitive angle and events are designed to foster this, motivation may increase.

Deciding which techniques to use

There are at least three useful guidelines:

  • Choose techniques that are fair, in that they do not boost priority artificially.

  • Choose techniques that reduce pressure rather than increase it.

  • Choose techniques that are quick to use.

Fairness and pressure

If people were perfectly rational, selfless team players most of the techniques discussed above would be unnecessary and distasteful. Formalising commitments, selling actions, creating visible events, harnessing competition, and weaving actions into personal thinking all attempt to boost actions of the project, at the expense of other work, for no good reason other than that someone who cares about the part-time project wants to see actions taken. They are social and political levers pulled to get advantage over others and their competing interests.

Sadly, people are not rational, selfless team players and anyone trying to ‘lead’ a part-time project is in competition with many others who are using these techniques to try to get their way. To give your actions a fair chance you have to fight back, somehow.

The losers from this competition are the people whose actions we try to influence. Another characteristic of formalising commitments, creating visible events, etc is that they all increase pressure. In a competition for the time of an individual both sides try to press hardest and it is the individual who feels that pressure. They may decide to try to escape from the competition.

Techniques that do not increase pressure include structuring projects for success despite high rates of failure on individual actions, reducing competition from other priorities (in the extreme, turning part-timers into full timers), and refining actions for efficiency and benefits to individuals.

Robust plans and refinement for efficiency and personal benefit also have the advantage of not favouring one project irrationally. In other words, they are fair.

Time efficiency

No single technique stands out as consistently more time efficient than others. The best choice depends on what factors are threatening progress.

For example, if the main factor threatening completion of an action is that the individual does not believe the plan will work then efficient techniques are likely to be (1) dealing with that belief with more explanation or a better plan, and (2) planning to succeed without the contribution of the person concerned.

Alternatively, the main threat may be from intense time pressure created by activities whose true importance is not high but which are driven ruthlessly by the manager concerned. Efficient techniques are likely to be (1) getting senior support for reducing the demands of the competing activity, (2) refining actions for efficiency and personal benefit, (3) weaving the actions into the person's life and putting reminders into their work place, perhaps (4) harnessing inter-departmental competition, and (5) planning to succeed without that individual's contribution.

Sometimes, methods are prescribed. For example, when internal auditors do a review and report findings with recommended actions it is usually company policy that the actions will be followed up, and standard practice for senior disapproval to be used as a lever to push people into doing actions. Since this is a given, the only decisions left are over what methods to use to make it more palatable for everyone concerned.


Anyone who's been pulled into as many part-time projects as I have knows that the biggest risk is that the interesting conversations at meetings lead to no actions and no change. No single technique seems to be effective at managing this risk in all situations. However, by reviewing the risk factors applying to each person and each action, and responding to the factors that seem to be most influential, we can usually make better progress.

Then we can reclaim perhaps the most motivating factor of all – that sense of being part of a success.

Made in England


Words © 2003 Matthew Leitch. First published 16 December 2003.