Timing Is Everything

Comic: “Ask me, What’s the most important thing about comedy?”
Me: “Okay. What’s the most important thing about—”
Comic: “Timing.”

One of the most misunderstood aspects of project management is timing. I’m not talking about how long you expect various tasks will take. (Answer: longer than you think… unless you do something about that.) Nor am I referring to task sequencing, or which tasks follow which. Both of these are difficult but well understood problems.

Rather, it’s critical to understand when to begin each task. Getting task-starts under control can give you a significant leg up on getting the project as a whole under control.

Project managers have a bias toward starting tasks early, as soon as possible (ASAP) in project-management parlance. They believe, often with considerable justification, that if they don’t push for early starts, bad things will happen. The task will prove harder than expected, putting the finish date at risk and affecting subsequent tasks. The worker will get yanked off onto some other urgent project, so a few days’ worth of “safety net” will come in handy. The sooner a worker gets started, the sooner any issues will become apparent. Or maybe the project manager needs to demonstrate progress to his manager, or to a client.

There’s truth here. Tasks may be hard. Workers get pulled away. Issues do crop up. (Demonstrating that people are working is not a good use of time, either the project manager’s or the worker’s. There are better ways to prove progress.)

However, there are downsides to these reasons. For one, you may be sending a message to the team that you do not trust them to get their work done. You may be telling them you have no organizational clout, or that the project is unimportant if you worry visibly that they’ll get pulled away. You’re increasing inefficiency by providing more opportunities for the worker to bounce between tasks on this project and tasks on another, or to bounce to email or Angry Birds. And you’re allowing Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time allotted for it – to wreak havoc with project times and costs.

Some tasks – and some workers – will benefit from starting as late as possible (ALAP). ALAP is not always the right approach, but don’t rule it out; it’s a valuable addition to your toolbox. Let me offer four examples.

First, busy lawyers naturally start tasks at the last minute. After all, that’s what busy means, sort of. If you try to bait or force or con a busy lawyer into starting a task too early because of your own fears about completion, you send a message that you don’t trust her. Do this too often, and the busy lawyer will tune you out. (I haven’t done a scientific survey, but my experience suggests this kind of project-manager behavior is second only to sheer incompetence in losing the trust and respect of the team.)

Second, starting certain tasks ALAP can send a message of get-it-done – no frills, no work the client doesn’t value, just the essentials. As Samuel Johnson said, Nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged in the morning.

Third, some lawyers (and non-lawyers) will labor over everything in a futile attempt at perfection, at ensuring every base is covered – even including some bases on the adjoining ballfield. Occasional tasks and bet-the-company projects may warrant that behavior. However, in these days of constrained budgets and an increasing focus on client value (and firm profitability or departmental budget discipline), not all the fruit needs polishing – cf. Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl. Starting a task ALAP is a very effective way of forcing a junior or over-perfectionist lawyer to work within limits. If the judge needs to see it tomorrow, there simply is no way to spend 48 hours on the task.

Fourth, make most decisions as late as possible. ALAP decision-making has three benefits.

  1. It increases the likelihood of a good decision because you have more information at your disposal.
  2. It minimizes the likelihood that you’ll keep revisiting something that’s already decided simply by compressing or eliminating that maybe-we-should-talk-about-this-again slack that wastes so much time in meetings.
  3. A certain number of decisions simply won’t need to be made, either because the passing of time and other project events have obviated them or because it’s now clear only one available or logical path remains and therefore no decision is needed.

I’m not saying every decision should be ALAP; sometimes you’ll luck into having all the right people in the room, or you need to put the decision in front of the client sooner simply because you know from experience they’ll want to pick at it. However, it’s surprising how often decisions benefit from being made ALAP.

Should you start all tasks ALAP? No, of course not. But neither should you try to start them all ASAP. Instead, look for ARAP starts: as reasonable as possible. Every task has its own natural timetable, based on your environment, the players involved, what else is going on, and so on. Don’t become a slave to one approach.

As the man said, timing is everything.

(In regard to the joke with which I opened this article…. Maybe you had to be there. Which is another important thing about managing projects: you have to be there. Projects don’t manage themselves. As Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.” Don’t be afraid to show up on your projects. But I’ll leave that for next time.)


  1. David Collier-Brown

    In computer projects where all the information is not known at the very beginning of the project, we often declare we are going to engage in “structured procrastination”.

    The decision will be made only after some evidence is obtained.