Do You Manage Projects Like a Bungee Jump?

The Rubber Band and the Bungee Cord

Why is it that most projects are more like bungee cords than like rubber bands? No, no….I don’t mean because they always seem to snap back in the face of the project managers!

If you think about it, a rubber band and a bungee cord are exactly the same thing. OK, the rubber band circles back on itself making it useful to put around your stray business cards, or to wear on your wrist to remind you to pay the electric bill before you find yourself in the dark (again!) The bungee cord is linear allowing you to connect one end to a very tall bridge and the other end to your feet before you hurl yourself off of it head first [note to self: next chapter – risk management.] 

In fact, the real difference between these two strips of elastic is that the rubber band is already fixed in its final position, while the bungee is only fixed at one end, and it is the process which is dynamic (talk about understatement!) This difference can help to demonstrate a useful principle of project management.

Maybe an example will help to illustrate. I’ve been managing R&D projects in pharma for quite a few years now. One thing that I’ve noticed is that formulators seem to be a pretty laid back bunch, while the regulatory affairs team is always so darned uptight. At first I just thought it was the nature of the people who went into each respective field. I mean, if you’re in RA you had better be pretty OCD about the fine details, because you know that the Responsible Authorities are liable to hand your submission right back to you based on nothing more than a few typos or formatting errors, and by the way, they don’t necessarily return all of your money at the same time. Worse than the cost is always the time factor, and resubmission is always going to set you back, so my RA friends are justifiably a very careful bunch.

So, if it is not personality type, what is actually going on here? Behavioural economists refer to this phenomenon as the “present bias”. The present bias refers to the tendency of people to give more weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments [1]. Dan Ariely gives a few great examples in his first book, Predictably Irrational [2] and likens it to an appointment at the dentist. When we make an appointment with the dentist 6 months away it seems like the rational and responsible thing to do to take care of our pearly whites. Not scary at all. But when that appointment looms large – “what? Tomorrow morning?” suddenly we’re not quite so sure what we were thinking when we made the appointment for that “harmless check-up”, have far more important things to do in the morning and just might call up and cancel.

But, how does that translate to the life of a project and the behaviour of our formulators and our regulatory colleagues?

The challenge

The formulator does the bulk of his research and development work right at the start of a project, while RA is right at the end. While they both see exactly the same delivery date for the project, let’s call that submission of the completed filing package to the authorities, for the formulators that date may be twelve or 18 months away, or even more. To them, the project has loads of time, and an extra few weeks tweaking the product to be even more perfect carries less weight. However, to the RA team that starts collecting the data for file compilation much closer to the deliverable, submission, every single day, sometimes every hour counts a great deal!

The resulting behaviour, as described above, means the formulators seem to have plenty of time, “oh, I’ll have that for you by the end of next week/month/quarter!….” while the RA team are always harried and rushing about, often spending the last few days or even weeks before submission burning gallons of midnight oil. 

This brings us back to our bungee cord – which is the way most projects tend to behave. OK, let me explain. We’ve all seen those horrifyingly exciting videos of bungee jumpers hurling themselves – or being “delicately” thrown – off of that bridge. While plummeting towards the river below, the bungee cord itself is completely slack and, as Newton taught us, falling right alongside our brave (lunatic?) jumper. As the earth below rushes up to meet our hero (for some reason my on-line thesaurus keeps suggesting ‘lunatic’), the elastic cord begins to stretch out until finally the tension on it reaches a maximum and (hopefully) slows and then stops our diver’s momentum, ultimately yanking her back into the air for a few more anti-climactic bounces. The tension on the bungee at the beginning of the jump is zero, while at the end is maximal, just like the tension on the players in our project.

What about the rubber band? When one stretches a rubber band the tension is the same across all parts of it. It would be impossible to stretch a rubber band between two points with one end slack and the other end tense. 

Taking this analogy back to our project – how can we manage our projects more like rubber bands than like bungee cords, so that the tension is spread evenly among all participants in a more equitable fashion from beginning to end? Asking this question from the perspective of project management, what can a project manager do to overcome present bias so that formulators and regulatory alike behave with the same level of urgency?

CCPM

Over the last few years I have become an ever increasing enthusiast of Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM). Without getting into all of the advantages of CCPM over Critical Path Management (CPM), I will suffice for this essay to focus on just one aspect, the way we estimate the time it takes to perform each project activity. CCPM, or as I like to call it, Common Sense Project Management, teaches us what we already know, that some activities are completed on time, while others are not. 

Yet when we ask ourselves or others to estimate the time an activity will take, we generally do not estimate the time the activity should actually take, but get an estimate with a lot of slack built in. This is not because we are all naturally lazy or inept, nor does it come from any lack of motivation. It simply stems from our desire to be reliable, and deliver our activity “on time.” Project managers tend to be human, and as such susceptible to present bias. As a result we have a tendency to allow formulators plenty of “reliability time”, but to deny this to the regulatory team, when “every second counts!”

How can the project manager ensure that the project behaves more like a rubber band than a bungee cord? Create trust and keep your timeline tight.

By working together with the project teams we need to strive to give realistic estimates of how long each activity should take – even at the beginning of a project. This takes a lot of trust on the part of the project manager and the teams, and this trust is a crucial aspect of any project. Ensure that all players are committed to the estimated durations, and do whatever it takes, subject to available resources to make it happen. 

Once the trust and the principle are achieved, it is the project manager who has to make sure that the elastic band is held firmly at both ends. Our intrepid project manager must be aware of present bias and steadfastly resist the temptation, especially early on in a project to accept that an activity will only take “one more week” just as we cannot accept it later when the delivery date, like the earth rushing up at the bungee jumper, looms large. With a robust plan in place and critical activities that are vigilantly managed, the project manager can lead the team to create the much needed tension at the beginning of the project, and that is when the magic happens. 

If we can learn to avoid the very human tendency to procrastinate at the early stages of a project, we will find that there is ample time for those whose activities come at the end of the project to perform their work with the same level of tension as the rest of the team.

Let me add one caveat for our project manager. The time for advancing the project should be considered sacrosanct, not the plan itself. Activities may be shifted to be performed in parallel, and time may be crunched by adding resources, with appropriate risk management put in place. It is the overall duration that must be preserved, if at all possible.

Which brings us back to that terrifying nose-dive off the bridge. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for all you extreme sportsmen, BASE jumpers and those of you who choose to ride the New York City subway system [note to self: check wife’s insurance coverage.] I only suggest that we save the adrenaline rush for our non-project related activities because when it comes to managing projects, life is exciting enough without adding any avoidable risk, and if you need a reminder, put a rubber band around your wrist.

  1. O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. American Economic Review, 89(1), 103-124

2. Ariely, Dan (2008). Predictably Irrational, Harper Collins.

Mike Teiler
Pharma strategist
Project and portfolio management and integrator
Author

7 Comments

  1. Such an amazing and insightful blog.
    Loved the way every word is put together to form an interesting story.
    Very good job.
    keep it up.

  2. Howdy! This post could not be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of
    my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this.
    I am going to send this article to him. Pretty sure he will
    have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

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