The Surprising Causes of Project Delays: The Four Delayers

Project Delays

Delays are the nemesis of any product or project team. They disappoint stakeholders, inflate budgets, and drain team morale. While it’s common to attribute these delays to typical issues such as poor planning or inaccurate estimates, a deeper narrative exists. Lurking beneath the surface are the ‘Four Delayers’ – Distractions, Dependencies, Decision Latency, and Debt. These often overlooked factors play a significant role in project delays and deserve careful attention and management. Uncovering and understanding the key causes of these delays is a crucial step towards getting results in less time.

1. Distractions 🐿️

Like mischievous squirrels, distractions scurry across your path, tempting you to lose focus on the main road of your objectives. They can manifest in various ways, including frequent interruptions, context-switching between projects, or chasing the latest shiny object rather than focusing on key tasks. The impacts can be severe: they not only inflate the timeline but also cause the team to lose sight of the main goal.

It’s crucial to minimize distractions. This involves fostering a culture of focus, clearly defining and communicating priorities, and empowering teams to say no, respectfully, to stakeholder requests that don’t align with the current project goals.

2. Dependencies 🔗

Dependencies are like a series of connecting flights – one delay can lead to a cascade of subsequent delays. External dependencies, i.e., those relying on individuals or groups outside the team, can be particularly troublesome. They introduce uncertainty and can lead to delays that are out of the team’s control.

Minimizing and managing these dependencies is crucial. It’s about planning effectively, communicating with other teams, and where possible, making the team as independent as possible by eliminating external dependencies. By taking proactive steps to reveal and address dependencies, you can regain control over your project’s progress.

3. Decision Latency 🚦

Like navigating through city traffic filled with numerous stoplights, each decision-maker outside of the team represents an additional ‘stoplight.’ Delays at each ‘light’ or decision point can lead to decision latency. This latency manifests as the ‘stop-and-go’ of progress through the project, with delays compounding at each stop. Just as drivers look for clear, open roads to ensure a smooth journey, organizations must strive to reduce decision latency, fostering an open road for the flow of ideas and actions.

Reducing decision latency greatly depends on giving the team increased autonomy to make decisions. This requires effective communication, clarity on decision-making processes, a commitment to quick response times, and management’s support in providing feedback and clearly defined constraints, so the teams can self-manage within them.

4. Debt: Technical and Learning 💳

Debt is comparable to an aged and neglected bridge that has suffered from years of disregard, obstructing your path forward. Technical debt arises when expedient and convenient solutions are prioritized over robust, long-term approaches. Failing to address this debt results in a compounding effect over time, manifesting as increased maintenance demands and diminished capacity to seize crucial business opportunities. Simultaneously, learning debt denotes the gaps in knowledge and skills within a team. Neglecting investments in honing their expertise and understanding their customers hampers problem-solving, innovation, and value delivery, further amplifying the burden of debt.

To reduce debt, deliberate decisions must be made regarding technical approaches, coupled with a commitment to continuous learning and skills development for the team. While taking on some debt may be justifiable in the short term, accumulated debt accumulates exponentially over time. Neglecting it exposes your project to a flood of delays and interruptions when the metaphorical leaky roof eventually caves in. 

Next Steps: Your Action Plan

To address the Four Delayers and drive positive change, follow these steps:

  1. Identify and minimize delayers within your control: Start by recognizing the delayers that your team can directly influence. During retrospectives, introduce the Four Delayers and discuss their potential impact on your projects. Brainstorm ways to minimize their effects and explore possible solutions. Utilize the template and infographic provided to facilitate these discussions and keep the team focused on addressing the delayers.
  2. Measure the impact of interventions: Utilize Flow Metrics such as cycle time, lead time, and work item age to measure the effects of your interventions. This data-driven approach provides tangible evidence of the improvements achieved. Share these results with leadership to reinforce the value of addressing delayers and maintain momentum within the team.
  3. Engage leadership to resolve external delayers: Request the support of leadership in addressing delayers that lie beyond your team’s control. Share the insights gained from your analysis and present the measurable improvements achieved within your sphere of influence. By highlighting the benefits and providing data-driven evidence, you can enlist the support and collaboration of leadership in eliminating external delayers.

To aid this process, leverage tools such as A3s from Lean, root cause analysis, systems thinking diagrams, and value stream mapping. These techniques help uncover hidden delayers, shed light on their root causes, and provide insights into minimizing or removing them.

Collaborate with your team and leaders using the following questions:

  • What delayers are affecting us?
  • How do they show up?
  • How do they impact us?
  • What are the causes?
  • What actions can we take within our team to minimize the delayer?
  • What must we influence outside of the team to minimize or remove the delayer?
  • What changes might be needed in the organization to make this possible?

When we address and minimize the delayers, a remarkable transformation occurs. The flow of work becomes smoother and more efficient, resulting in increased speed without placing undue pressure on the team to work faster at an unsustainable pace or compromise on quality. By removing distractions, untangling dependencies, reducing decision latency, and managing technical and learning debt, we unblock the friction and remove the waste in the environment that unnecessarily slows your team down.


We created an infographic and a questions guide that you can use to get insights and an action plan to reduce the delayers in your organization:

The 4 Detrimental Dealers Infographic

The 4 Detrimental Delayers Questions Guide

1 Comment

  1. Sean Murphy on 06/26/2023 at 7:38 pm

    Thought provoking list: how do you distinguish between

    Distraction vs. shared situational awareness (time frames probably matter)

    Dependencies – valuable specialization that leverages divide and conquer

    Decision latency and getting all the *necessary facts* and (ripeness vs. tripwires)

    Debt vs. experimentation and probes prototypes defer work to get feedback and help assess risk

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