How is it possible that individuals and teams can take a project which should take a few days, and not have it completed several months later?

Or why many artists continue to work on their next project for years, while showing very little progress when actually asked what has been completed?

Or why I wrote almost every single essay at university the night before it was due, instead of getting it completed a month ahead of time when I knew what the challenge was? (unfortunately, this is a true story)

It all comes down to Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands to fit the time available

Developed by Cyril Parkinson in 1955 during his time in the British Civil Service, it noted that people had an uncanny ability to take tasks which should be completed in no time at all with the necessary focus, and instead these activities could take hours, days or more.

His classic example is of an old lady writing a postcard:

an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

While we may all laugh at the fictional example of this old lady, Parkinson’s Law is actually a destructive property of the human brain.

Without clear timelines or deadlines to complete tasks, productivity can plummet.

If there is 3 months available until the next time progress needs to be checked, it is surprising how much of the essential, productive work is done in those last moments before it is due. Often, the total time taken to complete this value added work could be done in a week, if a week was all the time that was available, and people were forced to focus.

This has been shown in research from academic tests in research labs where students without a time limit took significantly longer to complete the same tasks than those with a limit, logging crews who could be just as productive in two days as 7 days if that was the delivery window, and managers at banks.

This is unfortunately especially true of innovation projects and creative production.

Many companies want to give their innovation teams the flexibility to try things in their own way, and not impose strict management criteria out of fear of destroying the creative potential of the team.

However, without clarity on what should be achieved and how to show progress, many projects just keep going on and on. Even when they should have been killed long ago.

In fact, setting deadlines is one of the best ways of managing innovation projects. If there is a clear process in place to validate progress, the teams will know exactly what experiments they need to run and how much time they have available.

In some cases, it might even energise the team to try out rapid, lean innovation experiments, where fundamental progress can be validated in a week, instead of half a year.

So if you want to actually make your ideas happen, then openly share a deadline. You’ll be amazed how much faster you make progress then.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.