2 March 2008

tragedy of the commons and project management

What do the tragedy of the commons and project management have in common?

(Thanks Bas for tipping me off to the Tragedy concept.)

The tragedy of the commons is an idea that was articulated in 1968 by Garret Hardin in Science magazine. (My research is from Wikipedia, so check the facts yourself.) The idea is that people acting rationally will deplete common resources.

A quick example is pollution generated by cars. Everyone knows that the pollution is bad and wants cleaner air, but no one person can make a difference. As a result you logically choose to drive your car around to work, the shops and so on.

Hardin observes that commonly shared resources will naturally be depleted to the disadvantage of all unless controls are put in place. Controls can come in various formats including privatisation, co-operative management or control from a government.

So, how does this concept apply to projects teams?

The most common reflection of this concept seems to me to be organisation’s inclination to use up the goodwill of its staff.

Many staff are working on several projects at once, or are supporting several projects at once. Each project manager, business analyst or other project leader is constantly asking people to stretch themselves just a little bit further for their very important project.

The goodwill of staff is a finite resource, but each project manager is working to deliver on time and budget and to quality, and it’s in their interest to use up a bit of that goodwill to get the short term gains of the next deliverable on time. Bit by bit, project by project staff are burnt out, even without the mammoth death march project

Many organisations try to manage this by charging staff out at a nominal (or sometimes commercial) rate. Even with charge out models people are often asked for that little bit of extra effort.

What is the answer? How do you keep your project team healthy and maintain a good work/life balance?

The first step is to recognise if this is a problem at your workplace.

Then you need to look at solution options. There are probably several of them including implementing better project governance, often via a PMO, teaching people to say no when they need to, and better implementation of charging out (and time tracking.)

What can you do?
Realise where your project is in the organisation’s pecking order. Are lives at stake? Will it have shareholders jumping out of windows if there is a delay? Or are you just another move in the marketplace that may or may not pay off?

If your project isn’t urgent, let people know and don’t expect miracles.

Be honest and upfront with your stakeholders and tell them when schedules are at risk and why (ie you are not project #1.) Let the stakeholders deal with the priority and take some of the pressure of your workers.

Spare some of the goodwill commons for next time.


  1. Great remarks Craig! If you like some more of this stuff in relation to project management, I might interest you to a small report I wrote two years ago:

    “Project Profiling With Systems Thinking”

    Hope you like it.

  2. Thanks Bas
    I'll read it soon.