How To Avoid The 100% Resource Utilization Trap

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“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What exactly did Eisenhower mean by this quote? Perhaps he could care less about the plan? Or maybe plans were important to him but he also felt the need to convey an important message about plans in general.

The importance of a plan

One of the points of the agile manifesto says: “Responding to change over following a plan” – which means, while there is value in making and having a plan, there is more value in responding to change.

Regardless where the plan starts, constant adjustment is necessary to reflect ongoing changes. This is really the essence of project management. A good project manager begins with the initial plan and then continually adjusts the plan to adapt to the current realities. The project manager then responds by adjusting those plan elements, which are no longer realistic or accurate.

The truth is, any forecast or project plan is already wrong just moments after the information hits the paper. Since the forecast is a prediction about the future, it is destined to be wrong. Does this mean the forecast is worthless? Not at all! The plan establishes a goal and provides an outline and a starting point for allocating resources.

When it comes to resource allocation, there is one common trap we often fall in: the 100 % resource utilization. The meaning of the 100% resource utilization is that intuitively we think that we accomplish most when we are working all the time. Finished with one thing? Go, start another. The project will end faster…

…but luckily this is not true!

What means 100% resource utilization?

Let’s consider two examples, the CPU (processor) and a highway.

CPU utilization

Just look at your computer. If you work with one, two or maybe three applications at the same time your computer works pretty well, right?

What will happen with your computer as soon as you open 10 or 20 applications or windows and the CPU utilization tends to reach 100%? The resource (in this case the CPU) is 100% utilized, but the performance of your computer will decrease dramatically. You will hardly be able to use it.

Highway utilization

Consider you want to drive from home to the office. The highway you are driving on looks like in the picture below. There are plenty of cars, all wanted to reach their destination as soon as possible. How long will it take you to reach the office? Probably very long!

Similarly to the 100% utilized CPU, a 100% utilized highway will make you incredibly slow. You will simply wait in a traffic jam because nothing moves forward.

The same applies to people: if we’re pushing individuals and teams to 100% capacity, the quality of work and therefore their productivity will be reduced to a massive extent.

And worse, as we’ve seen with the highway example, there’s gridlock too. When you look for 100% utilization, you have to consider that the people you need on your project are already partially committed on another project. You can’t find together for a meeting. You can’t have a phone call. You can’t even respond to emails in a reasonable time.

“People under time pressure don’t think faster.”
Tim Lister

What’s behind the 100% utilization belief?

One of the major problems which we create artificially when we try to go for 100% resource utilization is that we inforce multitasking. And multitasking has a very negative influence on productivity.

Multitasking leads automatically to context switching and as we know, our brain is not created to deal with heavy context switching. If we have to process too many information, our “Brain-Memory” is overloaded and this leads to stress.

“The number one root of all illness, as we know, is stress.”
Marianne Williamson

We start to feel overwhelmed, we begin to forget things, we get tired and we have the feeling that we have reached our limits. It is exactly as a computer CPU behaves – it gets slower and slower the more applications and windows we open. As soon as a threshold is reached, the computer simply hangs and is about to crash.

What can you do to avoid the 100% resource utilization trap?

1.     Start with the most important activities

Start by identifying the “big rocks” — your most important and non-negotiable projects and activities — and putting them in the first place. Then you’ll still have plenty of room to fit in smaller goals and activities.

It doesn’t work if you start with the smaller stuff — there won’t be any room left over to deal with the most important items.

This technique helps you to plan 60% of the day. The smaller stuff will fit to the extent you allow.

Tip: Use the daily planner which you can download here.

2.     Breaks and Day Dreaming

Creativity happens in the brain when your mind can wander away from what you were intently doing. Your brain needs to take creativity breaks to refresh the neurochemicals required for concentration and productivity. An easy approach is to schedule time for mind-wandering.

Tip: Close your eyes, fully relax (take at least six deep breaths) and “invite” your brain to daydream.

Thoughts and feelings will arise and behave chaotically. This is creative mind-wandering; watch it without interfering because this is how your brain solves the problems you’ve been consciously working on.

Now go back doing the work you love doing and notice how your productivity increases as your stress level drops!

Tip: Take a 5-10 minute “daydreaming” break at least three times a day, but beforehand, ask yourself a question you want answered or solved.

I really recommend the Pomodoro Technique as a starting point for day dreaming. Use the breaks for this purpose 🙂

“The principal resource needed for invention is slack (breaks). When companies can’t invent, it’s usually because their people are too damn busy.”

3.     Be mindful and avoid the autopilot

Have you ever sat in front of your computer wanting to write an email but then suddenly got absorbed by the fresh content of your inbox? And one hour later before going for lunch, the email you wanted to write is still not sent?

This was definitely not the plan. So let us have a look at the consequences: after lunch you will sit in front of your computer, will need to write that email and in addition to that you will also process your new emails which arrived in-between. Suddenly you feel again 100% utilized.

Tip: Be mindful and ask yourself: “am I doing what I was really indented to do?”. If not, just go back and do it!

4.     Plan your day with a positive focus

Begin always your daily planning process with a positive focus. One great way to do this is by celebrating your accomplishments. This is helpful because you can’t be creative if you are in a depleted emotional and mental state.

Tip: As soon as you wake up, stay a couple of more minutes in your bed and imagine your day full of successes and accomplishments. Smile while you visualize how problems are getting solved and feel a state of gratitude.

Conclusion

It is maybe surprizing, but a team which is 100% utilized will complete the project much later than they would if they weren’t.

This means that avoiding 100% utilization leads to the fact that we can build our projects cheaper.

Actually, it means that letting people do nothing (slack time) on occasions means that we can perform better.

Tip: Learn to say “No” and stop saying “I have no time”!

“Organizations with slack time are faster than organizations where the goal is to keep people busy all the time.”
Henrik Kniberg

Resources:

https://dzone.com/articles/100-utilization-myth

http://brodzinski.com/2012/03/myth-of-100-utilization.html

http://blog.myneurogym.com/how-to-find-focus-inspiration-creativity

http://jeffwalker.com/end-of-year-planning/

2 Comments

  1. Dorin, good you took this topic
    I remember from my project life that 100% utilization also make you tired and dismotivated, as you feel no control over what you are doing and as a wheel in big machine ( job satisfaction factors). Not mentioning the knowledge transfer in such case is going to be zero.

    Maybe you remember we have on some review mentioned queuing model, which mathematically evaluate time of context switching.
    I have learned recently that in humans its even worse, as stopping one task , automatically not switching out brain to work on that task.
    Our brain in background still thinking about previous task,
    also the time to focus on new task is longer then continuing the old one ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12880894)
    Cheers
    WK

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