Schedule Game #8: Pants on Fire


You're a project manager. Your project is proceeding fairly well. You've had a few bumps, but you're making progress. You come into work one day, and there's a message to meet with the Big Cheese. Big Cheese says, “Stop working on that project. Start on this one!”

Not only does this happen once, it happens several times, either bouncing you and the project team among several projects, or back and forth between two projects. Whatever the circumstances, you're multi-project multi-tasking, and so are all the people on your project team. You know you're not making progress on anything, and the urgency of all the projects keeps going up and up and up…

This schedule game is called “Pants on Fire.” It occurs when management is afraid to focus on one thing at a time. It has several possible causes: when the technical staff has a track record of being late, when there's no corporate strategy, or when the corporate strategy hasn't been broken down into sufficiently-detailed tactics.

Some actions you can take:

  • Plan for iterations, and start something new on an iteration boundary. To make this work, the iterations have to be short enough to start something new. (I've made a staged delivery lifecycle work in a company that was addicted to Pants on Fire management.)
  • Help management develop a corporate strategy.
  • Help test the tactics against the strategy.
  • Modify your current estimation techniques, so the project team is more likely to meet their original estimated dates.

Pants on Fire wastes everyone's time. But sometimes, management either cannot change their management style or cannot believe that multiprojecting wastes time. If you're in a situation like that, consider how you can create a project-wide environment that allows you and your project team to work successfully.

2 thoughts on “Schedule Game #8: Pants on Fire”

  1. Johanna,
    Are you sure you don’t have a hidden camera into our organization? This Schedule Game really hits home to our greatest challenge — Keeping Focus. We have the tendency in our organization to be reactive instead of proactive, always responding to the last phone call.
    We started to adopt some agile best practices in order to manage and execute iterative development properly, which has helped being able to react with less impact to people or projects.
    However, it would still be nice to be a little more proactive with a more defined strategy. I’m glad to see that we aren’t alone in our struggle, thanks for pointing me to some good ideas.

  2. Meredith Courtney

    Hi JR – my company, and my group in particular (testing) is plagued by these symptoms, but the cause appears to be coin-operated development of semi-custom software products, with insufficient staff (and profit margins) to allow us to keep working on an interrupted project that we know will be back, but the customer now wants it 6 months later. Got any advice for that situation?

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