Dangers of Delay (and lack of communication)

Northcote Parkinson is famous for his Parkinson’s Law in management that states

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

We likely have come across this law on several occasions – be it cramming for an exam, or running to finish a deliverable at the last minute. The more time we generally think we have, the more time we take to get the work done, even if the scope of work is much less than the allotted time.

He is also famous for another quote:

Delay is the deadliest form of denial.

This quote manifests itself more subtly than the law in day-to-day scenarios. For example, if you assign a task to your team and the team says it will be done, you assume that is the case and move forward with other things. Suddenly, the deadline looms and you check back with your team only to find that it’s not yet done and there are many reasons put forth – valid or not. It doesn’t matter at that point because there is little time to react and fix the issue.

On the flip side, this happens most often if a well-meaning team member does not know how to say “No” and keeps accepting work due to fear, insecurity, goodwill, and so on. The result of such an action is bad to both the person doing the work (because they end up getting stressed out) and the person asking for the work (because they work does not get done as expected).

However, sometimes things get a bit more nuanced. Maybe when the request was made initially, you felt you had enough time to do the work but then got swamped with other things. Maybe you were waiting for other dependencies. So, while you had a good reason to accept the work in the first place, there were equally good reasons for not to have completed things on time. The issue here is less about lack of control (in not saying “No”) and more about lack of communication. A sensible approach in this situation would be to simply communicate frequently, a task that is easier said than done.

Sometimes we may feel that it’s not a big deal. After all, in the bigger scheme of things, what’s a few days of delay? After all, didn’t Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), say

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

That might very well have worked for an accomplished author but not for mere mortals stuck in projects!

In his epic work on Ramayana, Kamban (கம்பன்) provides a very nice verse extolling the danger of delay:

தாழ்வித்தீர் அல்லீர்
பல் நாள் தருக்கிய அரக்கர்தம்மை வாழ்வித்தீர்
இமையோர்க்கு இன்னல் வருவித்தீர்
மரபின் தீராக் கேள்வித் தீயாளர் துன்பம் கிளர்வித்தீர்
பாவம்தன்னை மூள்வித்தீர்
முனியாதானை முனிவித்தீர்

thAzhvitheer alleer
pal nAL tharukkiya arakkar thammai vAzhvitheer
imayOrkku innal varuvitheer
marabin theeraa kELvitheeyaaLar thunbam kiLarvitheer
pAvam thannai mooLvitheer
muniyaadhaanai munivitheer

Translation: Your actions have not just resulted in a delay (in our current plan). Because of this delay, the enemies who we are against are living a good life (due to the break in our pursuit). You have brought more trouble to those who rule properly (because the enemies are emboldened). You have raised fear and anxiety within the sages (who are now unprotected). You have added to your own personal sins (by not keeping your word). And lastly, you have angered the king (Rama) who does not get angry that easily.

Some dire words indeed – and interestingly has a touch of T Rajendar-style rhyme to it 🙂

The words are spoken by Lakshmanan to Sugreeva, who was supposed to pull together an army of monkeys to fight for Rama. Rama had given him four months time to make this happen while he waited out the monsoon season before going against Ravana. However, although Sugreeva had sent his ambassadors to nearby kingdoms to pull together the army, he also gets engrossed in the high-life. After all, he just got crowned the monkey king, thanks to Rama just a few months back!

There is yet another verse that explains the danger of unearned wealth, such as one Sugreeva got:

தெள்ளியோர் உதவ,
பெரும் செல்வமாம் கள்ளினால் அதிகம் களித்தான்

theLLiyOr udhava
perum selvamaam kaLLinaal athigam kaLithaan

Translation: With the help of those that are more accomplished, he drunk the aphrodisiac of unearned wealth.

Sugreeva didn’t earn the kingdom. It was won with the help of rAma who killed vAli and crowned him upon vAli’s death. Like how many lottery winners end up wasting away their money because they are not prepared for it, so was Sugreeva with his newfound high life.

In our daily life, this can be equated to an unexpected extension in our deliverable due to external reasons (other project got delayed, politics, what have you!). Till that point we would be focused on getting our deliverable out because we were on a tight deadline, but if suddenly we got an extra three weeks, rather than using it wisely, we end up taking our feet off the gas pedal and take a ‘well deserved’ rest – only to suddenly find ourselves face to face with the deadline again!

The various implications of the delay that Lakshmana provides are quite varied but exhaustive – having an almost MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive) quality to it. Let’s attempt to translate it to a modern scenario. Your Manager asks you to get a module developed in one month time and goes away. The development depends on few other inputs – let’s say, infrastructure needs to be provisioned by Network team, database tables to be created by DB team, etc. You submitted the requests and are waiting for the work to get done. Suddenly, it’s a week before deadline and the Manager asks you for status (because you didn’t provide one so far). You explain that you are waiting for inputs / actions.

The Manager chides you for the delay and explains that the delay is not just about you not getting the module completed:

  1. The product is not going out on time, which means a competitor’s product can take lead in the market.
  2. Your customers who have pre-ordered your product are impatiently waiting for the delivery and hence will become inconvenienced due to the delay
  3. (a bit of a stretch) Your delay is cascading and impacting other modules that were dependent on you to get your module completed – QA is delayed, Release Manager is waiting, etc. and now they have to work overtime to compensate for the delay.
  4. Your credibility is impacted in this process
  5. You pissed off your boss who normally protects his team well to his superiors

Kamban has not only explained a simple situation, but has examined the issue in various angles and has eloquently explained the impact!

Lessons to learn

Apart from the literary beauty, what else can we learn from this incident in Ramayana? Looks like there are quite a few:

  1. Don’t be obliged to commit to a deadline. While Kamban does not explicitly state that Sugreeva was not comfortable with the four month deadline Rama provided, he does state it clearly that Sugreeva was incapable of refuting Rama (மறித்து ஒரு மாற்றம் கூறான் – marithu oru maatRam kooRaan – incapable of saying an opposing word) – potentially due to reverence or fear. As a result, he had to keep his commitment.
  2. Keep a pulse on progress. Sugreeva was well aware of the might of Rama and the consequences of not keeping his word. While Sugreeva says that he did send out his ambassadors immediately to all places, he does not say much about making any attempts to check the progress other than just to wait. This could’ve potentially been avoided.
  3. Maintain healthy urgency. After the initial push to get things going, Sugreeva got busy in day to day affairs of governance as well as in sinking into the comforts of his new found wealth. He got sucked into the routine – the biggest foe in meeting any deadline. However, we cannot also be running around like monkeys (metaphorically) – that doesn’t solve anything. Maintaining a healthy fear and urgency of the deadline will help keep a pulse on progress.
  4. Communicate status frequently. With the deadline approaching, Sugreeva could very well have sent a message to Rama proactively that things were getting delayed. While it would’ve still annoyed Rama, he would at least have been more understanding. It’s not like he didn’t have the means to do it – Hanuman was with him and one quick word and he would’ve been happy to convey the same to Rama. The lack of communication is a big factor in increasing anger on Rama’s side.

There are very many such gems hidden in Ramayana and Mahabharata and we hope we get to explore a few of them to the best of our abilities.


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