What Goldilocks Can Teach Us About Project Management

Brian Lee Yung Rowe
Jan 21 · 8 min read

The story of Goldilocks is a tale of optimization: finding things that are just right. Project management also looks for things just right, but instead of food, clothes, and beds, it is scope, people, and time. Understanding these three levers of project management will help you identify and resolves project issues. Mastering these levels will increase your project success rate.

Just right

The three levers of project management

Three interrelated factors affect projects: scope, people, time. Scope is the amount of work to be done. In software terms this usually translates to number of features. In other projects it might mean the scale of an initiative or how ambitious a project is. People refers to the number of people dedicated to the project. Generally these are the individual contributors actually doing work as opposed to managers overseeing the work. Finally, time is how long the project will take to complete. This is measured in calendar time, not in person-days.

In equation form, the relationship is

time = scope / people

For example, if the scope of a project requires 24 person-days, and you have one person working on it, it will take 24 days. However, if you have 3 people working on the project, in theory it will only take 8 days. I say “in theory” because collaboration takes away from actual work on a project. A strong team that is disciplined and has a effective process will be efficient. This team may only spend 5% of their time coordinating. An inefficient team could spend 50% of their time coordinating, especially in large teams.

The modified relationship is therefore

time = scope / (efficiency * people)

Returning to the example above, a team that spends 2 hours out of 8 coordinating has 75% efficiency since only 6 hours are spent on the project. A better estimate of how long the project will take is therefore 24 / (.75 * 3) ~ 10 days instead of 8 days.

The fundamental law of project management

Project plans are obsolete the moment people start working. Most of project management is about resolving unexpected problems that cause delays. The fundamental law of project management tells you how to get projects back on track. The law states that you cannot change one lever without changing one of the other two levers. Ignoring this law tends to result in mistakes, burnout, and low morale. It’s much better to work with the law and utilize it as a tool for planning, communication, and negotiation.

Here is an example of the law within an Operations department. Company A is growing quickly and needs a new office. A move needs to happen in 16 weeks, when a batch of new hires start. Clara is tasked with recommending a new office space. She has four weeks to make a recommendation, otherwise there won’t be enough time to move. Clara needs to research locations and visit a number of buildings. She also needs to list out the factors used to evaluate offices. Ideally she wants to find a list of 10 potential offices and narrow it down to 4 for in-person visits. Two weeks in, she has her list of 4 offices by has only visited one. If she visits the remaining three, she won’t have time to do the analysis at the end. What should Clara do?

Clara has two options. She can either communicate that she needs more time to finish her initiative. This is unrealistic since the move date cannot be changed. To meet the deadline, Clara needs to shorten the time to finish her work. The fundamental law of project management tells her how: by either adding people or reducing scope. If she adds people she can delegate some of the office visits to the other people. But this is not free: there is training and coordination overhead that impacts her efficiency. It also takes people from other initiatives that can disrupt other projects. The other option is to reduce scope. In this case the scope is tied to the number of office visits. If she only visits three offices instead of four, she’ll be able to have a few days remaining for the analysis and final recommendation. By reducing scope, she’s able to reduce the time needed to finish her project.

Many projects have a fixed delivery date, meaning the time available to finish a project cannot change (or is expensive to change). Whenever there is a delay, the project duration needs to be reduced by manipulating the other two levers.

However, this isn’t the only way the law works. The fundamental law of project management can be re-arranged to focus on one of the other levers. Software projects tend to suffer from “scope creep”, meaning that new features or functionality are added, either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes requirements omit a critical feature, meaning that new scope must be added. Rearranging the initial equation gives

scope = time * people

The fundamental law of project management tells us that adding scope will either add time or require more people. This is common sense: it’s unrealistic to think that more work can be done in the same amount of time.

Information as the key to evaluating project risk

A healthy project would make Goldilocks happy: just the right amount of time, the right amount of scope, and the right amount of people. But this is largely a dream. The reality is that project health fluctuates on a daily basis depending on numerous factors. Maybe someone got sick, someone is on vacation, a volcano erupts, a problem is harder than expected, etc. Project managers are responsible for evaluating the cause of delays and deciding which are significant risks, which are systemic problems, which are temporary. To assess the risk level requires information gathering, which can either be easy or hard. Ideally all necessary information would be current, accurate, thorough, and immediately available. Unfortunately this is rarely the case, and much time is spent gathering information. Even worse, the time spent gathering information takes away from the risk assessment and solution, which adds further risk to the project.

Process as the foundation for providing reliable information

Having an explicit project management process helps reduce the time spent collecting information.
Both Kanban and Agile focus on frequent and transparent communication. But process is only as effective as the people following the process. People must be committed to the process and disciplined to follow every day. Consistency is what enables people to rely on the process. If people are inconsistent, the information provided by the process is unreliable, and people will have to resort to long meetings to get to the bottom of issues.

For example, a daily “stand-up” in Agile is used to set expectations and ensure everyone has the same information. Each person is supposed to share
1. what they worked on yesterday
2. what they plan on working on today
3. anything blocking them

If everyone is engaged and listening to what others are saying, this process reduces many miscommunications. However, if people don’t pay attention or they don’t share sufficient details, then the information is unreliable. Too much unreliability results in people having side discussions to get the same information, which defeats the purpose of the stand-up!

In Kanban, a shared board (the kanban) is used for communication. Unlike other project management processes, Kanban focuses on minimizing waste in a process, which maximizes flow through the process. It began as a technique of lean manufacturing but has since become popular in software development. Work is organized in a kanban board in columns. Each column represents a specific state or stage of a workflow. A card represents a unit of work that moves through the process. In our software development process, cards start in Ideas then graduate to the Backlog when they have sufficient detail and are prioritized. When someone starts working on a card, it moves to In Progress. From there it can either move back to the Backlog (card was de-prioritized), to Blocked (something is preventing progress on the card), or For Review. In this state, work that is approved moves to Done and then on to a different board for deployment.

When the board is current, it is easy to assess the situation just by viewing the board. However, if people do not update cards, the board becomes useless. If someone has a card In Progress that they haven’t touched in a week or due dates have long expired, no decisions can be made based on the information in the board. That means information must be gathered via long discussions or meetings, which saps productivity.

Active monitoring of projects

Project managers are typically responsible for ensuring a project management tools is kept up to date. That means they are responsible for ensuring everyone follows the process. But all this work is overhead. It also takes away from more valuable work, like assessing project work, identifying and addressing patterns in delays, adjusting projects to resolve delays.

At Pez.AI, we created a chatbot called Proctor to automatically manage a Kanban board. Proctor knows our Kanban rules and reviews all cards in our boards daily. Like a human project manager, Proctor

. Ensures cards in the Backlog have a time estimate
. Ensures cards In Progress have a due date set
. Ensures that cards In Progress have a daily update provided
. Asks card owner to explain reason for a delay when a card is past due
. Ensures people aren’t over-allocated on too many cards

Proctor improves the reliability of the Kanban board. One key benefit is that all cards in a release have a time estimate and/or a due date. That means Proctor can automatically compute a completion date for the release. It posts the delivery date daily in Slack. When people see the completion date one of two things happens: they are either cool with it or panic. If the latter, the next thing they do is update their cards to be more accurate. If the delivery date is still too aggressive even after updating the cards, that is when a project manager steps in to apply the fundamental law of project management to get the project back on track.

Conclusion

Healthy projects have just the right amount of scope and people to fit the amount of time allocated. When projects become unhealthy, there is either too much scope, not enough time, or not enough people. The fundamental law of project management shows how to manipulate the three levers to get projects back on track.

Knowing whether a project is healthy or not requires data. This can be collected manually. We use a chatbot to do this. If you want to learn more about how Proctor can streamline your project management process, get in touch.

Knowledge is meant to be free! If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends.

Brian Lee Yung Rowe is founder and CEO of Pez.AI, a chatbot company automating management one bot at a time. Learn how bots can automate information gathering, knowledge sharing, and coordination in your business processes and projects at https://pez.ai.

AI Workplace

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Brian Lee Yung Rowe

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Founder & CEO of Pez.AI // Making human interaction more meaningful with chatbots and data science

AI Workplace

How AI will change the way we work

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