Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Parkinson's Law:

We all have a convenient form of Parkinson's law.
"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
People have suggested many reasons for this:

  • People with long schedules are less careful and have more errors to fix.
  • Work seldom is given half-enough time, so it expands rather readily.
  • The longer a project goes on, the more new ideas/features get incorporated into it.
  • If a project goes on long enough, it is punished and slowed by having people added to it.
  • People are lazy and will always slow their pace if not held to task.
  • People are creative enough that they can always find a way to achieve a task faster when required to do so.
  • People will continue polishing and improving the product indefinitely.
  • "Art is never finished; only abandoned." - Da Vinci
Of these, the one most commonly heard is the one about people being lazy. 

I suppose it might possibly be true if you're painting walls and are being paid by-the-hour, or if you're being paid by-the-word to write a novel. I know my kids are never in a hurry to do unpaid work for their parents (and I was the same way).

Even then, if you are paid by the job you have a built-in incentive to complete well and move on. My kids could be happier if they would fold laundry in 5 minutes instead of 25, because they could go on to watch tv or play video games or maybe wrestle or slap box each other. It isn't always about money.

But people who think for a living, programmers and managers and authors and consultants, tend to really like working. Even when they're not "working" they are introspecting, remembering, processing, pattern-matching, reading and studying, discussing, and obsessing on their work. Time not on billable work is the time they have to process what they've been doing and look for new ways to achieve the same results. Sometimes it's time to look for signs that their personal theory of work is flawed so that they can research the behavioral or technical laws they've transgressed. 

But there is one other feature of thinking for a living that needs to be considered: it's exhausting in a non-physical way. It drains us emotionally and mentally. 

There is significant work on decision fatigue, ego depletion, and other kinds of mental fatigue. It is usually cured by a bit of exercise, a change of topic to let the brain rebound, a bit of rest, or even by time alone with music or a good book.

Sometimes, when given a slightly relaxed schedule, the knowledge worker's brain sees the chance to recover. It can be deucedly hard to force it to operate optimally when it is trying to recover. This can be misdiagnosed quite easily.

If the schedule is tight (a constant sense of crisis) then it manifests in stress and can have rather more serious physical, mental, and social consequences.  There is a reason that many consultants deal with alcoholism, divorce, and digestive disorders. It's not *most* consultants, but it's not unusual. 

At Industrial Logic, we identify overburden as one of the rampant wastes in software processes. It might be that the answer is not to work faster all the time, but to consider the mental states and pace of operation that bring us to our peak. 

An agile trick here is to build software in thin, vertical slices instead of all-or-nothing dives into architectural layers. By building a little bit that works, and doing it quickly, we are letting our mental muscle rebound more. Sometimes we forget, and do work in big, stressful steps. It doesn't go any faster, and leaves us less brainpower to think with on the other side.

The other thing we have learned is to monitor our own cognitive state and stop working when we start to detect a creeping inability to engage successfully in our work. There are times to simply "muscle through" but we know that if we're always exhausted we won't be read when those times come.

And with that note, I drop off for the night.

What do you think Parkinson's Law teaches us? Why do projects expand? What is the answer?