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Are Your Project Managers Working too Hard to be Successful?

‘Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.’ Robert Heinlein (1907 – 1988)

The latest Standish Group report shows more projects failing and fewer successful projects.

‘This year’s results show a marked decrease in project success rates, with 32% of all projects succeeding which are delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions’ says Jim Johnson, chairman of The Standish Group, ‘44% were challenged which are late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions and 24% failed which are cancelled prior to completion or delivered and never used.’

So what is going wrong out there? Why are your projects being challenged in this way? Are your project managers perhaps working too hard to be successful for you?

The Challenge

The whole world is challenged, that’s for sure!

On one hand, we face the Global Recession, with all the impact this is having on people and business. On the other hand, we are a dynamic, resourceful and ever evolving world that demands change as part of its survival. Change demands projects and projects demand project managers.

W have a history littered with significant project failure, although there have been spectacular successes as well The Standish Report 2009 clearly shows that history may well be repeated in many cases.

Now it is even more critical to succeed, and succeed with a higher level of certainty than in the past. Future projects, as well as those underway now, will be expected to deliver higher business impact, and they will be under closer scrutiny and greater pressure from senior management

And guess who will be the one under the most pressure! You, and the project managers in your organisation. You need the best project managers you can find and you need these project managers to work in the most effective way possible.

Enter the World of ‘Productive Laziness’

So how can you ensure that your project managers work in the most effective way to deliver successful projects?

We all know about the 80/20 rule, let’s start there.

The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that for many phenomena, 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes. The idea has rule-of-thumb application in many places, but it’s also commonly misused. For example, it is a misuse to state that a solution to a problem ‘fits the 80-20 rule’ just because it fits 80% of the cases. The implication is that this solution requires only 20% of the resources needed to solve all cases.

The principle was in fact suggested by management thinker Joseph M. Juran and was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of property in Italy was owned by 20% of the Italian population. The assumption is that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes.

So ‘20% of clients may be responsible for 80% of sales volume’. This can be measured, is likely to be roughly right, and can be helpful in future decision making. The Pareto Principle also applies to a variety of more mundane matters. One might guess that we wear our 20% most favoured clothes about 80% of the time. Perhaps we spend 80% of the time with 20% of our acquaintances, and so on.

The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, can and should be used by every smart but lazy person in their daily life. The value of the Pareto Principle for a project manager is that it reminds you to focus on the 20% that matters.

Woody Allen once said ‘80% of success is showing up.’ I’m not so sure about that. I have seen projects where there was a project manager around, but you would never have believed that from the project’s progress, or lack of progress.

It is better to recognize that only 20% of the things people do during their working day really matter. Those 20% produce 80% of the results.

So, you should get your project managers to both identify and focus on that 20% during their working day and drop the other 80%. This is the first step to becoming even more effective – less is definitely more. Make them into Lazy Project Managers, avoiding working long hours on tasks that don’t matter, but doing a more productive job on those that do matter.

Science Behind the Laziness

It’s no good just being lazy; you have to be better than lazy, you have to be lazy in a very smart way.

Productive laziness is not just about being lazy, it requires something more and that is a powerful and magical combination of laziness and intelligence. Smart lazy people have a real edge over others in society and are most suited to leadership roles in organizations.

This theory has existed for many years and applied in a number of interesting ways. One of the most famous of these was in the Prussian Army.

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800 – 1891) was a German Generalfeldmarschall. The chief of staff of the Prussian Army for thirty years, he is widely regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter half of the 1800s, and the creator of a new, more modern method, of directing armies in the field.

Moltke had a particular insight and approach to categorising his officer corps, something which lives on to this day within many armed forces, and something which can apply to all forms of leadership.


If you consider the two ranges of individual characteristics, those that go from diligent through to lazy, and those that go from non-smart through to smart (yes, I am being politically correct here) then you end up with the four character types in the diagram above.

General von Moltke divided his officer corps into these four distinct types, depending on their mental and physical characteristics. He ended up with (and he never had to be politically correct being born in the 19th century and being chief of the Prussian army) type A: mentally dull and physically lazy, type B: mentally bright and physically energetic, type C: mentally dull and physically energetic, and type D: mentally bright and physically lazy.

Type A officers, who were mentally dull and physically lazy, were given simple, repetitive, and unchallenging tasks to perform. They had reached their career peak in the army. That said, if you left them alone then they might just come up with a good idea one day, if not then they won’t cause you any problems either.

Type B officers, who were mentally bright and physically energetic, were considered to be obsessed with micromanagement and would, as a result, be poor leaders. Promotion was possible over a period of time but not to the status of commanding officer of the German General Staff. These officers were best at making sure orders were carried out and at thoughtfully addressing all the detail.

Type C officers, who were mentally dull but physically energetic were considered to be somewhat dangerous. To Moltke, they were officers who would require constant supervision, which was an unacceptable overhead and distraction. Because they might potentially create problems faster than could be managed, these officers were considered too much trouble and were dismissed. No career there then!

Which brings us to type D officers; these were the mentally bright and yet physically lazy officers who Moltke felt could and should take the highest levels of command. This type of officer was both smart enough to see what needed to be done but was also motivated by inherent laziness to find the easiest, simplest way to get it done. Put in a more positive way, they would know how to succeed through the most efficient deployment of effort.

So, smart lazy people have a real edge over others and are most suited to leadership roles in organizations. Being a ‘Lazy’ Project Manager is all about applying these principles in the delivery and management of projects. It is assumed that your project managers are not stupid, so they are already on the right hand side of the diagram. What you now need to do is hone their lazy skills in order to rise to the top right hand side of the diagram. Do this and not only will your projects be more successful, you and your project managers will also be seen as successful and top candidates for future leadership roles.

‘Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it.’ – Walter Chrysler

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Peter Taylor, despite his title of ‘The Lazy Project Manager,’ is in fact a dynamic and commercially astute professional who has achieved notable success in project management, program management and the professional development of project managers: currently as head of a PMO at Siemens PLM Software, a global supplier of product lifecycle management solutions. He is an accomplished communicator and leader; always adopting a proactive and business-focused approach and is a professional speaker for City Speakers International. He is also the author of ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ book (Infinite Ideas 2009) – for more information see . You can also subscribe to a series of free audio podcasts on iTunes (The Lazy Project Manager).

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