Home » Schedule » How To Avoid Optional Chaos In Your Project

Project Management Optional Chaos“This … predicts an enormous increase in cost and effort … when a project’s development duration is compressed substantially. It also shows that there are great savings to be gained if a project’s delivery schedule can be relaxed. I suggested a qualitative explanation for this in … the enormous increase in effort with very short schedules is due to the distribution of much of the work on the project into a wasteful activity I called ‘optional chaos.’ When projects have relaxed schedules, they don’t have much of this valueless overhead so a much higher percentage of their work goes into actually creating value in the product.” Phillip G. Armour, “Practical Application of Theoretical Estimation,” Communications of the ACM, June 2011, pg 28.

I love it, but I don’t think Phillip has quite captured the reason why this is — at least not in my experience. Phillip talks about “optional chaos” and I do agree that an aggressive schedule generates chaos and that it is indeed optional. It doesn’t have to happen, just as we don’t have to have an aggressive and undoable schedule.

More on good schedules: Its The Schedule Stupid

Instead, when we’ve taken organizations from late and buggy (low quality) projects to on time with good quality, the solution was almost always first a realistic schedule. The profound findings in these efforts were that projects were taking no longer to complete than previous projects of the same type that were late and buggy. How is that possible? We got the schedule right up front and didn’t need to slip out the schedule during the execution of the project. Starting with an aggressive schedule and then slipping it out is a classic approach to projects that generates what I believe Phillip is describing as “optional chaos.”

More on why slipping a schedule rarely works: In Project Management 9+3 Is Not 12

Does that mean when we finally chose a realistic schedule, the chaos goes away? Nope, not in my experience. Instead, the project is just as crazy with people running around often from crisis to crisis. The difference is that when the chaotic smoke clears at the end of the project and we say it is finally ready to go, we are still on schedule.

The good news is that once we figure out how to do realistic schedules, then we are then in position to start to reduce the chaos. Much chaos comes from people believing that things will be just as bad as in the past or often because they don’t understand that problems are normal in a project. It is not the project problems, that are the problems. It is how we respond to them and plan for the risk of them that makes the difference.

More on managing risks: Make Your Project Practically Risk Free and Problems Don’t Need To Be A Big Deal

Any good student of process and quality improvement recognizes that we can often quickly get rid of “low hanging fruit” problems (aka special variations) but that it takes time and structural and cultural changes to reduce the wide range of normal problems (aka normal variations) that we encounter. Making any kind of changes or improvements, however, is almost impossible when given a project schedule that doesn’t allow time to do the job right the first time, let alone do the job, deal with all issues, and improve how we do the job all at the same time.

More on Doing The Job Right The First Time

Getting the schedule right is a good first step in ridding our projects of optional chaos. However, general chaos will not go away with a good schedule. Instead, our team’s ability to get better at what they do while dealing with the general chaos and while doing the project, staying on schedule, and delivering a quality product will noticeably improve.

Have you seen instances of optional chaos in any of your projects?

Thank you for sharing!

3 thoughts on “How To Avoid Optional Chaos In Your Project

  1. Ankit says:

    “Much chaos comes from people believing that things will be just as bad as in the past or often because they don’t understand that problems are normal in a project.” – Absolutely True !!!

    I have found that a workshop to kick-off the project aimed to set expectations right goes a long way…:)…Challenge is to get all the right stakeholders attend it rather than send their delegates…:p


    1. Bruce Benson says:


      I kicked off a project for a major consumer electronics product. I invited everyone (managers, but also their folks) who would eventually be involved over the lifetime of this project to hear about the product, why we were doing it, and what the schedule and challenges would be. One would think we would do something like this for every project, but we didn’t. Projects were just things that popped up on to a manager’s staffing list, and they added their folks to it as needed. They had many project at any one time, and they learned details as they were needed (i.e., when a crisis occurred). I had several high level managers thank me for having the kickoff and also mention that no one else had ever done this before — invited them in so early to explain about the project (and product).

      Kick-offs are a great tool and you may want to have a couple of them, targeted to difference audiences (a “workshop” many not be best for more senior management, for example).

      Sounds like you have some good ideas that work well. Keep at it.


Comments are closed.