Even if you’ve got a Plan B, there’s no excuse for making a completely unachievable Plan A. If your plans are based on 100% productivity, that’s not a plan, that’s a pipe dream. Let’s talk about better Plans A. (And stay tuned below for the answer to what percent capacity you should plan for.)

Planning All Wrong

I see it all the time. Teams and leaders plan their time by estimating how long it will take to do a given task (usually wildly optimistically) and then do some simple math to determine how many tasks they can therefore fit into the day, week, or month. They have a beautiful, accurate-looking timeline that they commit everyone to deliver.

Does your team do this?

It’s a recipe for disaster.
A blueprint for burnout.
A catalyst for crises.

[Side rant: If you’ve ever worked in professional services, you’ll have lived the tyranny of “utilization” and the expectation that you can bill clients 37.5 hours per week while somehow magically invoicing, attending professional development, selling new work, oh…and filling in the blasted timesheets to prove it!!]

Perfect productivity is not a thing. Sh!t happens. And sometimes it’s not even sh!t that happens…super-duper stuff happens. Awesome opportunities arise. And if there’s no slack in your system, you can’t cope with the bad stuff and you can’t capitalize on the good stuff.

Without any slack in the system:

  • Colleagues have no time to collaborate or help out because they’re already fully committed
  • One team’s small misstep backs up the schedule in a supporting team and ripples on in the supporting team’s inability to then help a different team (If you’ve ever worked with a bad general contractor, you know this plumbing, electrical, drywall trifecta of terror)
  • You have no time to change approach, even if it’s a change for the better because the retooling time takes you off track
  • You are totally screwed up by unavoidable weather events, supply chain backlogs, traffic jams and have to use personal time to make up for it.

I wonder what proportion of the much-ballyhooed Great Resignation is a result of the completely unrealistic expectations we’re putting on people. Planning for 100% capacity is not only inefficient but also inhumane.

I took to LinkedIn to rant about the problem of planning for full capacity and I was overwhelmed with the messages in support of slack in the system. Here are some of the benefits people shared:

  • Buffer leaves space for greater creativity. If you have time to experiment, you can discover new and better approaches (Deepak Agrawal & Stacy Brookman)
  • Planning for less than 100% productivity leaves space for you to ruminate and for ideas to percolate. That’s where wonderful disruptions are born (Dr. Caroline Brookfield)
  • A little extra staffing allows you to handle illness and absence without throwing off the whole system
  • Downtime gives your mind time to process information rather than becoming completely overwhelmed
  • Having a little wiggle room allows time to revisit, learn, and close feedback loops
  • And I’m not ending the list without saying that when we leave some slack in the system, we have time to pee between meetings. Amen to time to pee between meetings

Wiggle Room

One of the most fun things to come out of my LinkedIn post was at first a comment, and then a conversation, and then a connection with data science executive and host of The Effective Statistician podcast, Alexander Schacht. Alexander shared with me an episode of the podcast where they talked about capacity planning in complex systems. He had been inspired by an 11-minute delay on a Deutsche Bhan trip that resulted in a cascade of delays and travel headaches. That provided the perfect excuse to talk about capacity in complex systems.

It turns out the mathematicians are studying exactly this (of course they are). And there’s an answer. It’s 80-85%. If you plan for 80-85% capacity, then small bumps on the road don’t accumulate and amplify. With 15-20% slack, you can go around the obstacle without getting off track.

So, stop. Really. Just STOP thinking you can plan perfectly and not leaving room for mistakes, or changes, or shifting priorities, or emergencies, or snow days, or delays.

Start planning for 80% Prevent the domino effect of one little issue triggering a landslide. Bake in some breathing room and reduce burnout.

Building your GANTT chart assuming 37.5 hours of productivity a week from each and every employee is actually hurting your productivity, eroding efficiency, and contributing to the great resignation.

Further Reading

Enough about Workload, the Problem is Thoughtload

Prioritize Means Deprioritize

Tsunami of stress