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4 Behaviors That Can Save or Destroy a Project and How Scrum Can Deal with Them

9 December 2013

Kaveh Kalantar
ACTUM, NextKickOff

There are four behaviors that can easily destroy or save a project. Many scientific studies have been done on these dysfunctional behaviors, and many new frameworks have been presented by management gurus to deal with these dysfunctional behaviors, but still 99 percent of employees, from top to bottom, waste productivity and resources because of them. It is interesting to know that many will not admit or accept it, despite all scientific studies and experiments, and will hate to read the rest of this article(!). These dysfunctional behaviors are:
  • Student Syndrome
  • No Early Work Transfers
  • Parkinson's Law
  • Polychronicity
When you were in school, when was the best time to study for an exam or finish your homework? Or to put it a better way, how many times did you prepare for your exam days/weeks/months in advance? When did you start studying -- after your teacher announced that there would be an exam in two weeks? From that same day, or a couple of days later, or maybe two days before the exam? Or the entire night before the exam?!

This is Student Syndrome, waiting until the last day/hour/minute to start a task that was planned weeks before. The start of a project is as important, and usually more important, than its completion date. Many projects get delayed because they have started late! Project owners are relaxed at the start of a project; there is no sense of urgency or high volume of adrenalin, no management pressure. Therefore they wait until the last minute to start a project. This is wrong, and projects can be saved and finished on time, if projects start on time.

Have you ever watched a 4x100-meter relay race? Have you ever seen a runner in a relay race who runs faster than others and reaches his teammate, stands and rests, and does not pass the baton because he is far ahead of his competitors? Of course not, what a silly question! In a relay race, all team members run fast and do not delay passing the baton to the next guy. In projects, however, if you finish work earlier than expected, you may not pass it to the next guy right away. This is called No Early Work Transfers. There are incentives for not reporting a task completed earlier than expected -- such as management not reducing the task duration next time. The result is that dependent tasks start late, and therefore the project gets delayed. Managers must be wise enough to avoid such dysfunctional behavior by providing a transparent environment and engaging team members in the estimation process.

Although you may use a buffer between dependent tasks to avoid No Early Task Transfer or Student Syndrome, here comes Parkinson's Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If I give you five days to complete a task, in the best-case scenario you will complete the task in five days, although you may actually be able to finish it in two and a half days.

Next: What do many job descriptions have in common? Answer: multitasking. Companies praise multitasking and encourage employees to engage in it. But many management gurus have suggested that multitasking reduces productivity and the quality of the end result. This is our last dysfunctional behavior: Polychronicity. When tasks interrupt each other and one needs to deal with all of them at the same time, things get messy. Although many claim that they are superman and can handle multitasking, if you watch them you will see no sustainability or consistency in their work or end results.

Student Syndrome, No Early Work Transfers, Parkinson's Law, and Polychronicity are all dysfunctional behaviors and can be corrected by changing one's mind-set and, as a result, the culture of the organization from top to bottom. Project management methods and frameworks such as the Critical Chain Method and Scrum deal with all of these dysfunctional behaviors with simple techniques and tools.

In Scrum, everything is timeboxed. Every meeting is timeboxed, every sprint or iteration is timeboxed. There is no deadline, but there are many timeboxes! Teams using timeboxing are way more productive than teams using deadlines. There is a shift in mind-set from "We need to work hard to meet our deadline" to "How much we can get done in the given time?" This is a basic but powerful change in mind-set.

At the start of planning in Scrum, the team tries to evaluate its productivity by looking into past performance and the work environment and the skill sets in hand (velocity). Then the team decides how much it can accomplish in a timeboxed period, and it decides what the duration of that timebox is.

Teams that use timeboxing look at things with more accountability and with a sense of ownership. They decide what they can get done within a specific period of time and then they commit to it. Teams that have deadlines always disagree with those deadlines, as they do not see the ownership and self-commitment.

Daily stand-up meetings in Scrum are a means of self-inspection. They allow every team member to share his or her accomplishments, plans, and obstacles with other team members on a daily basis (and sometimes with the product owner and customer) in full transparency. If a task is close to being completed, then others will know and will act accordingly (avoiding No Early Work Transfer). If one shares his or her plans and accomplishments on a daily basis with others who do the same things, working together, then this individual will not be trapped in Student Syndrome. Imagine a class of students who must share their exam preparation work and questions/obstacles with other classmates and the teacher on a daily basis until the exam day. I guarantee you that everybody would get a B, if not an A-plus!

The team shares its progress with whomever is interested, usually putting that progress on a wall (virtually or physically). Team members review it daily and make adjustments if necessary. Such transparency gives ownership and responsibility to team members and the result is high motivation.

When you combine the simple techniques of timeboxing, volunteerism, continuous self-inspection, transparency, continuous ordering (prioritization), and team estimation that Scrum provides, then you will have a team that never falls in to the trap of the four dysfunctional behaviors. Although it may take some time for the team/organization to reach this maturity level, the good news is that the tools are there and path is clear!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.9 (18 ratings)


David Lowe, CSP,CSM, 12/17/2013 4:12:04 AM
At last I feel the world is waking up to the nonsense of polychronicity - let's limit our work in progress and focus on finishing work, not starting work.

Nice post. Although the concepts are not new to me, I'd not heard of a few of the titles that have been assigned to them.

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