I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The first of these is on the topic of the driving priority in management of the project.
It's that time of year - looking back at close of this year and looking ahead to the next one. And the attendant work of making goals and resolutions. I do this every year, but I take some time to get it right for me - I start thinking about it now, but usually end up with a final list for myself near the end of the month. This gives me time to consider what worked previously, what didn't work, what my current priorities are, and where and what I'd like to be in the future (not necessarily in this year, but eventually).
Imagine you are decorating a room. There is large sofa, and you have some throw pillows decorating it, but it looks a little bare, so you get some more. And some more. And some more. How many is too many? 5? 20? 65? Like cupcakes or party invitations, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. This applies to collaborative teams as well.
Like most writings on the topics of waiting and delay and procrastination, this one has taken several years to get to. Age and time don’t always make things better, but they do perhaps make things possible. So here we are.
I first came upon this topic in 2012. At the time, I was wrestling with how explain to someone that delay in decision-making, while an essential part of good leadership, can also be perceived as indecision, procrastination, or disinterest, and – worse – lead to a passive decision to do nothing (essentially, putting off a decision till later is deciding not to act now). But what is the right amount of time to consider and mull? Act too soon, and you can make a serious error. Wait too long, and you can miss an opportunity or make a situation worse through inaction.
To me decision-making is akin to taking a photograph of a sunrise or sunset. Nowadays, you can take several dozen digital photos, then look at them later on your computer and pick just the right one. But what if you could only take one? How would you determine exactly the right moment to click the shutter? Too soon, and the light is still too bright, the colours not that interesting. Too late and the light is dim, the colours dull. There are many analogies – hunting, birding, surfing, cooking, writing, speaking: how do you know exactly the right moment to take the shot, or jump, or speak? How long do you wait?
Harvard Business Review has this uncanny ability to drop an answer or a hint at just the right time. More prescient than a fortune cookie, the Management Tip of the Day often brings good information just in time for whatever’s going on. And 13 July 2012 was a great example. This article seemed about right for my current problem.
It led me, as I’m sure was intended, to purchase the book. However, I’m sure it was also intended that I read it sooner than 4 years later. Regardless, I did get to read it and I’m glad that I finally did.
Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, by Frank Partnoy looks at active procrastination as a part of decision making. The style of the book is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, both in the language and the presentation – providing scenarios and stories to exemplify definitions (regardless, Partnoy could not make the concept of “discount rates” any less dense, so this part was a bit of slog but an important component of the science of delay).
Procrastination has two forms. The first is what I’ll call Passive Procrastination. This is the kind we most often think of as procrastination: unconsciously letting delay happen, or being easily distracted from something large, difficult or important, primarily to avoid doing it. In this form, we allow our bias towards the present (what’s easiest right now?) to override what we might need to consider for the future. This is where the whole “discount rate” thing becomes important, and he does a much better job in the book explaining it than I ever could, so I refer you to that for more details. The other form of procrastination is Active – consciously managing the delay up to the point of decision making or taking action, in order to best manage risk and use resources effectively.
The yang to procrastination’s yin is something called pre-properation. If procrastination is waiting when you should act, pre-properation is acting when we should wait. This is rooted in impatience – the need to have or see any result (not necessarily the right or best one).
It was this tension between procrastination and impatience that I was most interested in learning more about. I always thought there was an art to determining when to act – a balance between quick decision making and careful decision making, waiting until just the right moment so that risks are low, opportunities are high, and resources are optimal. Decide too quickly and you might be acting rashly, moving forward with insufficient information or wasting resources. Wait too long and you’re essentially deciding not to act (a concept I have a hard time convincing others of – by “not deciding right now”, you are deciding to do nothing).
The book doesn’t answer the question of how-long-is-too-long. But it does reinforce some good habits of leaders in decision making:
I’ve been told that I’m a quick decision maker (fortunately for me, often enough, I’m also a good decision maker). People have asked me, ”How do you do that? Make decisions like that so quickly?” I do try to incorporate the three items above, but I think I also have the benefit of experience – I’ve been doing this a long time, not just working but making decisions at work. There is also a certain element of bravery associated with good decision making, as you have to be willing to stand by your decisions, or at least explain them. One of the key ways I support and empower those that I work is just that: regardless of the outcome of your decisions, if you can explain to me how and why you made them, and that makes sense, I will always back you up and support you.
This book provided much food for thought, and it was helpful to read that decision making is both art and science, and that there is no magic formula, only a balance. Also, that procrastination is not necessarily bad: as long as it has a purpose (and you get other things done in the meantime), it is not “doing nothing” but rather a conscious delay towards making a good decision.
Scenario: you’re writing a proposal, and the funding agency (or client or sponsor) website says that the submission deadline is 5pm EDT Monday 31 August. But your project manager has said that your deadline is noon on Thursday 27 August. What the heck? Why do you have to complete it four days before it’s due? What if you really need the weekend to fine-tune the meat of the proposal? Can’t you give it to them at noon on Monday?
After a dozen or so years of working with scientists on grant applications and proposals, I’ve learned a great deal about the ways they work and their needs for time to make their great science look and sound great on paper. Having tried (and failed) several times to write grants myself, I know there is great art within that science, and so my mission as a project manager remains: enable the best possible science and more of it.
I’ve also learned, and hopefully have demonstrated, that there is method to the madness of setting deadlines for proposal projects. The method aligns with the mission – enabling the science – by making it possible for the proposal to actually be submitted. Which means that the funder deadline is not our deadline.
Deadline is actually a horrible word, when you consider its definition:
deadline (n): 1. A line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot. 2. a date or time before which something must be done.
It is no surprise then that deadlines rarely have the feel of incentive. But the modern use of the term seems odd – if I were a prisoner in such a prison, I would be staying as far away from the deadlines a possible, never mind meeting them.
Considering the quadruple constraint (scope-time-cost-quality), it’s also not surprising that deadlines quickly become a thing in projects – and a proposal is a project. Defining those boundaries is essential to planning and managing successfully. However, deadlines can quickly take over as being goal or objectives themselves, when really they are just another milestone – a point in the project to measure progress – only at the deadline milestone, estimate to completion should be zero. Milestones are tools for good project time management, but like any tool they only work well when applied appropriately. Part of using them appropriately is distinguishing between the real and the artificial.
Real deadlines are more often imposed by an external entity, such as the funder, but can also be internal to a department or institution. But, they are only real if they’re also firm – as in, there are real consequences for not meeting them. Real deadlines look like this:
They will also typically have specific scope and quality requirements, too. The above deadline requires that the complete proposal in the correct format with all the required elements is submitted BEFORE the deadline. These are as close to the original definition of deadline as we get in the research management world. Missing a real deadline can be pretty devastating.
Artificial deadlines are usually internal or self-imposed. They are more accurately called milestones, as they are (or should be) established within a timeline to enable all the participants to be able to do what is required to meet the real deadline. Unfortunately, because these are self-determined, they are often seen as more flexible and can be ignored or overruled if one part of the team falls behind schedule.
This is what I refer to as “the peril of the deadline extension”. Teams and leaders can very quickly undermine their plans and put their success at risk by extending internal deadlines. By allowing these internal milestones to be moved or circumvented, the project schedule closest to the real deadline becomes compressed, often to the point where success is now nearly impossible. Scope and quality are sacrificed to time, as the precious “last minute” becomes the last 30-seconds, giving insufficient time to deal with unforeseen hurdles.
There are a myriad of things that have to happen with a proposal to get it submitted, and while some sound trivial, they can be enormously time consuming. Converting a document to PDF should, in theory, take very little time and work the first time you do it. However, as anyone in science can appreciate, things that sound like they should work often don’t work out exactly right the first time (cell lines, anyone?).
There are more complex elements to proposal completion as well, such as: aligning other proposal pieces (budget, team description, management plan) to the aims; confirming references and citations in the proposal are correct (and in the correct order and format; checking page and character limits. Many of these things are done in parallel with the main proposal writing, but they must be re-confirmed prior to submission. Since everything else in the proposal links to the science piece, nothing else can be completed until that is done.
And so the proposal deadline becomes a few days to a week in advance of the funder deadline. The project manager sets this deadline to minimize the risk that the submission will be unsuccessful due some kind of administrative issue. Believe or not, the deadlines and milestones are not set to be maximally inconvenient – they are set to maximize the chances of a successful submission.
There is an intrinsic benefit to these internal milestones as well. Without a boundary for time, teams and writers can sometimes get stuck in analysis paralysis – the project stops moving forward while the team analyses all the possible angles and options. This endless rumination (“we should all go away and think about how best to do this”) will happen without some firm date by which decisions must be made and things completed. By ensuring that necessary decisions get made in a timely manner, all elements of the project can proceed towards completion.
A recent piece that I read brought up some interesting points about deadlines. This author asserts that there are two challenges with deadlines: they force decisions to happen within a given timeframe, sacrificing quality to time and they create a disincentive to revisit a process or project once it’s completed, as people will have “project fatigue” from having worked within a challenging timeline, and be unwilling to look at it again once it’s done. While these challenges are likely when deadlines are arbitrary or poorly planned, well-placed project milestones can encourage LEAN thinking by making time a key element in the project, and they can encourage more thorough risk assessment in project planning and better break-testing and change management processes in project implementation so that returns to the past don’t happen but continuous improvement does.
So deadlines are not the enemy – poor project planning and time management is. Well planned and placed milestones enable projects to be successful by ensuring that the project team keeps track of what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what the true project objectives are. Meeting the deadline is not an objective. Completing the project successfully – the full scope of work to the required quality within the time allowed without breaking the bank – is the goal.
Don’t believe me? Check out what NIH has to say: first-time applications (i.e. not re-submissions) submitted ON the due date are TWO TO FOUR TIMES more likely to ultimately miss the submission deadline than those submitted one week ahead of the deadline.
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.