Project and Program Managers — Don’t Throw Away the Wrapper

By Corbin Links

Monday, 9:19am…
Happy Monday! Wherever you are, and whenever you may happen upon this article, I hope the topic is timely.
This blast from the past, originally posted in 2007, is as fresh as ever. It deals with the perennial topic of big-time project management task calculations. I’m helping a couple new clients grapple with this age-old issue and thought it might be useful for others as well. Enjoy!

Understanding the ‘Task Wrapper”

dont-forget-the-wrapper-imageWhat is the “Task Wrapper” or “task multiplier” in a big/enterprise IT Program? The wrapper multiplier is known by many names: organizational wrapper, effort multiplier, task overhead, etc. Names may vary, but the concept is the same: any task or group of tasks, within any plan, have an intrinsic time value plus some unit of organizational overhead required to complete the task. As a general rule, high multipliers (making tasks take longer than they need to) are bad for a project budget, low multipliers are good.

Let’s look at some basic examples…

Suppose the installation of operating system software on a particular server takes a moderately skilled IT person 4 hours to complete. The 4 hours in this case is the “intrinsic task time” applicable to this task. Put another way; “all things being equal, a mid‐level IT person could complete the installation task in four hours.” For technical tasks, getting this number can be

Once the intrinsic task time (4 hours) has been calculated, the task wrapper is calculated by applying some arbitrary, or pre-calculated base multiplier to the original task. The degree or size of the multiplier is entirely dependent on the type of organization, and its unique system of people, processes, and politics. In general, the more inefficient and “top heavy” or “political” an organization is, the higher the multiplier. As a rule, task multipliers are directly proportionate to the size and complexity of the organization – but not always. Small organizations are not exempt from the ranks of the inefficient.

The formula then, looks something like this:

Intrinsic Task Time X Task Wrapper = Actual Task Time
Continuing the operating system example above, let’s say the installation task is going to occur within an organization that has a very high degree of organizational overhead. Overhead is additive, and might change our equation to something like this:

Intrinsic Task Time (4 hours) X Task Wrapper (5) = 20 Actual Task Hours.

How did I figure the multiplier? Honestly, it’s an experienced
guess based on experience with high overhead organizations. One organization may have a much higher wrapper (typically the larger, or more complex organizations); other organizations may have smaller multiplers.

Task multipliers can be any value, positive or negative. The challenge is that the actual multiplier may conceal itself across multiple project plans and resource personnel. In that case, you may need to hunt it down in your organization’s project management organization (PMO), or other places.

What is included in the task wrapper?

  • All the meetings associated with the task itself
  • All the technical issues that can accompany the task
  • All the logistic placement issues that can accompany the task
  • All the emails, phone calls, and chat sessions which accompany the task
  • All the general obstruction issues that can accompany the task
  • Anything general and unforeseen (people taking off for vacation and not updating the team calendar, as one example)

To find a reasonable (but realistic) task wrapper for your project, ask around (quietly and with political sensitivity) and determine how long tasks typically take. Experiment with a couple of task definitions and see how
close your projections are. Better yet, find someone else’s project within the organization do a couple dry run tests on your task wrapper numbers. Adjust up or down as needed.

Here’s another scenario:

Let’s say that the moderately experienced IT in our previous example takes a vacation, or is let go, and a highly experienced expert or outside consultant is brought in for the task. In addition, the organization is no longer one with a high organizational overhead, but a small start up that operates at peak efficiency. The multiplier could be negative, and reduce the original task time from 4 hours to 3 hours. (-.25)

One final point before leaving this important topic: remember that task
wrappers can also be negative numbers, and adjust tasks downward. And honestly, it can be tough to sell reality to anxious stakeholders. Still, I think it’s worth it in the end. Better to be up front and honest, then to be that “yes” man or woman who tries to appease and ends up with a failed and over-budget project.

Your Challenge

How do you “keep the wrapper”? What tips or strategies work for your projects? Do you get pushback, or do clients appreciate the “task wrapper” honesty? Be heard in the comments below.

In the meantime, stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, when we talk about calculating a budget in the IAM or Enterprise IT worlds.


About the Author

Corbin Links -- Health Nut, Nutritionist, Tech Warrior, Business IT Strategist and Consultant, Author, Podcaster, Blogger, and Other Duties as Required.