The power of productive laziness

Dec 03 2009 by Peter Taylor Print This Article

It was Robert Heinlein, the American science fiction writer, who observed that "progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something." How right he was.

The annual study of IT failure by the Standish Group, the "CHAOS Report", suggested that more projects are failing and fewer are delivering successful results. "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," they said. Additionally, some 44% were " challenged" - late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions - and 24% failed entirely and were cancelled prior to completion or delivered but never used.

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


The whole world is challenged that is for sure!

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

Now is the time that is even more critical to succeed, and succeed with a higher level of certainty than seen before since those projects that will be commissioned in the future, as well as the ones that are allowed to continue in the current climate, will be expected to deliver higher business impact, be under closer scrutiny from senior management and be under far more pressure.

And guess what. Who will be the one that is under the most pressure, you, as represented by your delegates? The project managers in your organisations.

So surely now is the time that you both want the best project managers you can have and for 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 deliver in the most effective way and 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; it must be implied 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 it 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 evaluated and 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 approximately 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.

dThe 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 percent that matters.

So, you should get your project managers to both identify and focus on those things 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 in to 'Lazy' Project Managers, avoiding working long hours on tasks that they don't need to work on 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 had a particular insight to and approach to categorising his officer corps 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 then you end up with the four character types: lazy, diligent, smart and not-smart.

General von Moltke divided his officer corps into these four distinct types, depending on their mental and physical characteristics. He ended up with the following (and he never had to be politically correct being born in the 19th century):

  • type A: mentally dull and physically lazy
  • type B: mentally bright and physically energetic
  • type C: mentally dull and physically energetic
  • 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 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, and because they would 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 achieve what was required.

Put in a more positive way they would know how to be successful 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 what you now need to do is hone their lazy skills so that they learn how to become successful through the efficient deployment of resources.

Do this and not only will your projects be more successful, you and your project managers will also be seen as successful and a safe pair of hands for future leadership roles.

As Walter Chrysler said: "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."


About The Author

Peter Taylor
Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor is the author of two best-selling books on ‘Productive Laziness’ – ‘The Lazy Winner’ and ‘The Lazy Project Manager’. An entertaining speaker in the project management world, he also acts as an independent consultant coaching executive sponsors.