Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dealing with Procrastination in Business

We have a client who will have their annual internal review meeting next week and we have every expectation that the delivery rate on their quarterly deliverables will be about 60%.  60% is a failing grade and disappointing for all.
All of our clients work on 90 delivery cycles.  Within the 90 day cycle are two kinds of deliverables.  The first kind consists of weekly deliverables which include items on the weekly scorecard and items on the list of to-dos that emerge from resolving issues.  The second kind of deliverable is the quarterly deliverable.  The quarterly deliverables are the more major initiatives that will drive the business forward and usually require more time and effort to complete.  Each deliverable is assigned to a single individual who is accountable to the group for meeting the deadline.
The individual who is responsible for the deliverable is part of the process that identifies what these deliverables should be, when they matter, what their priority is, and who should have ownership.  This is a team effort.  When they sign up for the deliverable they have a pretty good idea of what is involved and that the delivery timeframe is reasonable.  This was the condition for our 60% client. 
On one hand, achieving just 60% of deliverables is a negative for the business.  But it has a silver lining.  It tells us we have a problem that otherwise might be much tougher to discover.  If people are not missing deadlines, it is harder to detect that you have a procrastination problem.  Procrastination manifests itself in two ways.  First is the obvious one where deadlines are missed.  The second is less obvious but it turns out that procrastination leads to poorer quality work.  
Fortunately, we have academic research to look at.  In 2001, Dan Ariely, then at MIT, and Klaus Wertenbroch at INSEAD conducted two studies on procrastination1.  In the first study two groups of students, with equal academic performance, were instructed that they had three papers to complete before the end of the term.  One group could set their own deadlines at the beginning of the semester for each of the papers, the other group had the deadlines set for them with their papers due in the  4th, 8th, and 12th weeks.  If a paper were late, then each day of delay would cost the student a 1% penalty on the paper’s score.  There was no grade impact for turning a paper in early.  In the second group, if a student’s objective was to give himself the greatest flexibility he would choose the turn all the papers in on the last day of class. That would give him the most time to complete the three papers.  But only 27% of students chose this option.
The question was, which group got better grades.  At the group level, the first group, the one with fixed deadlines imposed upon them of the 4th, 8th, and 12th weeks did best.  They scored 89% compared to 86% for the second group (you’d expect them all to do pretty well, after all these were MIT students).  But when Ariely and Wertenbroch looked at individual performance where the students in the second group chose deadlines that were equivalent to the deadlines imposed upon the first group, there was no difference in performance.  In other words, the students that pushed the deadlines toward the end of the term in the second group pulled down the grades of the group as a whole. The second study, although different, supported this conclusion on quality of work.

In the work we do, the 90 day timeframe implies that the due date for all quarterly deliverables is the last day in that 90 day period.  In the graph above the blue line represents effort over time.  There are the two kinds of approaches we can take for this effort.  For many of us, our typical approach is to hold the bulk of the effort until the deadline is near. This is the “As Is” approach. We’re deadline driven.  But this means that we push the work out until the point where time is the resource in short supply.  This causes us to make choices that we may otherwise not make.  We take short-cuts because we have to.
In business our goal is not just to meet deadlines, but to produce the best quality work given the timeframe.  In the “Should Be” model, we start work on the project early and put in the effort to get ahead of the deadline.  This leaves us ample room to make adjustments and improvements as the deadline approaches.  This approach provides far more capacity for better quality.  It is where we want to be.
Where we have an issue with procrastination in a business, the question comes back to that central leadership question of, “How do we obtain the behaviors we desire?”
The academic research suggest two things.  First, where you have an opportunity to procrastinate put in place a structure that forces the individuals into a position where procrastination is not possible.  You do that by setting staggered goals, or by breaking a bigger goal into staged steps, each with a separate and sequential due date.  And, of course, following up to ensure those dates are met.  This is good, not just for the company, but also for the individuals involved.  It allows them to get more done, do higher quality work, and feel better about their work.  
Second, establishing consequences for making, or failing to make, deadlines is useful.  We usually talk about these carrots and sticks in terms of financial impacts. “If you fail to get this done on time, you’re FIRED!”  But we know already that these are weak motivators.  You want to take a few minutes and think about how you can tie the consequences to more powerful motivators like Identity and Meaning2
For example, you have someone who has come up with a very clever solution to a vexing problem.  Their project is to deliver that solution by a specific date.  Assuming this person is like the typical creative problem solver, what they treasure is to have a reputation as a clever problem solver.  The incentive you can establish for them to make the deadline is to send out a companywide description of how they came up with a clever the solution, if they make the deadline.  While this is a very inexpensive way to reward someone, it is a strong motivator for a particular kind of person.
Or take a company that has a charitable giving program and you have an employee who is very involved in the process.  The incentive for on-time delivery here could be that the individual will be able to select the recipient for a donation and will have the donation made in his or her name.
It takes a little thought to come up with a link to a powerful motivator, but is usually worth the extra effort since it can be quite effective in eliminating the procrastination problem.

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