Introducing intermediate deadlines can help project teams dealing with schedule pressure. However, it is possible to push a team over the edge by planning too many intermediate deadlines.
BI RESEARCH: Project Management
“Don’t do today what you also can put off tomorrow” (a quote from the book: “Heden ben ik nuchter” written by the Flemish novelist Herman Brusselmans).
The behavior described above is also known as procrastination or student syndrome. Students often start working on an assignment just before the deadline, even though they have known about this deadline for weeks or even months.
By postponing their work, they eliminate time buffers. This can become problematic when some unexpected tasks are discovered just before the deadline, leading to schedule pressure or stress.
Facing unexpected tasks just before deadline
Pressure may cause students to work harder, but it may also cause them to cut corners, make mistakes, or even to miss the deadline all together.
To avoid this student syndrome, students are given intermediate assignments, or mid-term exams.
This way they are forced to start working with the course material earlier.
Instead of having one deadline at the end of the course, they now have two or more deadlines equally spread over the course term.
The student syndrome is also a common phenomenon in project teams. Also for project teams this behavior can cause huge problems when unexpected tasks are discovered just before the deadline. Schedule pressure peaks and teams often have to work over time at the end of the project or skip some tasks to get the project finished on time.
Creating a sense of urgency
Agile project approaches are increasingly being adopted. One of the key characteristics of these approaches is that they employ short iterative cycles.
Like mid-term exams, these short iterative cycles create a series of deadlines; consequently, a sense of urgency or schedule pressure may be experienced right from the start of the project as opposed to near the end as in traditional methods.
The literature is full of support for agile software development approaches, but what are the practices in terms of the length and number of iterative cycles?
Most practitioners recommend a fixed iteration length of one month, or 20 working days, but these recommendations are made without analyzing how monthly deadlines influences schedule pressure, team behavior, and project management performance, despite the popularity and importance of agile approaches.
Facing schedule pressure
The research on teams facing schedule pressure has yielded mixed results. There are both positive and negative consequences related to deadlines for team behavior and project management performance.
Furthermore, it is unclear which effects of schedule pressure outweigh the others and what their cumulative effect is when projects need to deliver incremental parts at consecutive deadlines rather than only one at the end.
Studying effects of different deadlines
In this study, we analyze how different iteration lengths (i.e., the number of deadlines) in a project affect schedule pressure and, consequently, how schedule pressure influences the behavior of the team over time and project management performance in terms of quality, costs, and time.
We perform our analysis through simulation using a widely validated systems dynamics model based on theory and data from an actual software development project.
The model combines the technical aspect of agile development (multiple iterations, errors, quality, costs, time) with the human factors underlying such development (experience, exhaustion, turnover), including both the positive and negative effects that schedule pressure can have on these factors.
Schedule pressure leading to poor quality
Our research shows that at one end of the agility continuum (i.e., projects with one deadline at the end), the eventual peak of schedule pressure is so high (and lasts so long) that it leads to sharp increases in errors generated, with not enough time to detect and fix them.
Due to the distant deadline, the team lacks a sense of urgency in the beginning of the project, which leads to procrastination (inactivity).
The result is not only poor quality, but also extra effort in fixing the errors that do get detected.
Pushing the team over the edge
At the other end of the continuum (i.e., projects with monthly deadlines), deadlines toward the end of each iterative cycle also create high peaks of schedule pressure. Due to the early deadlines, progress is demanded too quickly, whereas understanding the task at hand and the resulting productivity are still low in the beginning of a project, which leads to overwork (overactivity).
The team falls increasingly behind in deliverables from one iteration to the next, and exhaustion from high schedule pressure reduces productivity further.
Mounting schedule pressure leads to less attention paid to error detection and correction, as well as a greater inclination to take shortcuts that further increase error levels, which result in adverse outcomes, poor quality, and higher effort and time taken.
Thus, it is possible to push a team over the edge by planning so many intermediate deadlines that there is little or no time to recover from the pressure of the previous deadline.
Therefore, beyond a certain point, adding intermediate deadlines simply adds to schedule pressure without commensurate increases in learning or productivity.
Our findings suggest that iteration lengths of 2 to 3 months work best.
- Oorschot, K.E. van, Sengupta, K., Wassenhove, L. van. (2018). Under pressure: The effects of iteration lengths on agile software development performance. Project Management Journal 49(6): 78-102.
- This article was first published in BI Leadership Magazine 2019. BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organzational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.
Text: Professor Kim van Oorschot, Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.