Project managers must manage the tendency of project workers to procrastinate, which leads to delayed efforts and, subsequently, quality problems. Understanding the behavioural biases of project workers leads to solutions to procrastination — solutions related to compensation, team composition and the management of information.
Many project managers are now working with contract or distant employees who have some autonomy in how they plan out the assignment. These projects required highly skilled workers but often are not exciting enough to be intrinsically motivating. Examples include information technology or business process outsourcing projects.
New research explores the implications of this type of work, and especially the temptation to procrastinate during the early periods of the project. The reason is what the researchers call ‘cost salience’. People put more value (in psychological terms, attach a greater salience) on immediate time. Distant hours are seen as less valuable, which is why people tend to push work off to those later hours. The result, in project management is ‘effort distortion’ (as opposed to effort that is evenly distributed through the time of the project).
The researchers thus identify two types of workers: those with ‘high cost salience’ who are likely to procrastinate, and those with ‘low cost salience’ who are less likely to procrastinate.
There is a price to procrastination: work done under pressure of deadline will be of less quality, leading to costs related to unsatisfied customers, delays, cost of fixing products, etc.
To explore how to manage cost salience and reduce costly effort distortion, the researchers developed a statistical model based on a project that would be completed in two periods. Incorporating different variables (such as different cost saliences, one-person vs. multi-people projects), the researchers gained insights and practical behavioural guidelines on managing project teams based on the following issues:
Team managers, who know the various worker types on their team, can strategically share or withhold information in order to encourage the most timely and best quality work. Imagine, for example, that each worker on a two-person team mistakenly believes the other is a procrastinator. The result: both will work hard in the first period to get more work in the second period. In this case, the manager would do well to withhold the truth and let them both push hard. In another case, a non-procrastinator mistakenly thinks his colleague is also a non-procrastinator. In that case, the manager should let this employee know that his colleague tends to procrastinate: the employee will then be motivated to work harder in the first period. At the same time, no use telling the procrastinator on the team that his colleague doesn’t procrastinate; otherwise, the procrastinator will do even less!
This research reveals how team composition and the management of information are different levers managers can use to ensure the most high quality and time execution of their projects. Some specific guidelines for project management include the following:
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