Planning, Productivity and the Cumulative S-Curve

Time to focus on that small, regular progress which builds into really significant long-term achievement

I’m writing this in early September, just back from family holidays. It’s time to commit to and to get down on paper the priorities and achievements I want to focus on for the remainder of this calendar year. If you run your year quarterly:

  • Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec, Jan-Mar

then the start of the month before the next quarter starts is a great time to get this kind of planning done. (Which is why I’m doing planning for the Oct-Dec quarter at the beginning of September).

And, of course, any other periodic structure that works for you is just as good.


You might already know that people generally tend to under-estimate what they can achieve in the long-term, and over-estimate what they can achieve in the short-term.


One of the consequences of this tendency is that it’s really important to plan what you want to achieve in a cyclical way. To look at both long-term and short-term, and to link those together. Longer-term planning needs some ambition and vision. Shorter-term needs more realism. I’ve written before about how you might use the Rule of Threes to help with this.

Another way to think of it, is as a series of linked S-Curves.

Any project managers reading this will be familiar with the concept of the ‘S-Curve’: a graph showing how costs, labour hours, profitability or outputs in a project typically flow over time. Slower at the beginning, accelerating in the middle and slowing down again towards the end. There may even be downward slopes at the beginning and again at the end, as the rate of the input/output measure tends to drop at those points.

When it comes to how much you might achieve over time, your own S-Curve graph might look something like this:

If you can take the time each quarter to refresh this work and to intentionally plan the priorities and achievements that you want to focus on then, over time, you’ve got more chance of your overall achievements building into a kind of much bigger cumulative S-Curve. This is how small, regular progress builds into quite significant longer-term progress. I think it’s the accumulation of achievement in this way that’s behind our tendency to under-estimate just how much we can achieve in the longer-term.

If you were to make a graph of it, most project-managers (and technologists, who love this kind of stuff) will be familiar with the cumulative S-Curve graph, which looks something like this:

I often feel in this kind of planning process that the joy, spirit and motivation can all too easily get sucked out of the whole thing. Even if you’re somebody who does get excited about the planning part, it’s just as easy to lose heart when the weight of everything that needs doing becomes clear. Again, this is why it’s so important to approach this in a cyclical way. In the longer-term, a great deal can be achieved. In the shorter-term, we have to be realistic about what’s possible and find ways of motivating ourselves about it. I’ll leave you with some thoughts about stuff that does seem to help with that motivation part.

Whenever you do it, as you’re refreshing and planning the priorities and achievements you want to focus on, does it help you to also include things like these:

  • How do you want things to ‘feel’?
  • What’s exciting, attractive or rewarding about your priorities?
  • What needs to happen in order to stop the sky from falling in?
  • What does it look like? I mean, if we could jump in a time machine and travel forwards to when you’d achieved it, to the end of that S-Curve, what would we see, hear or feel in relation to each of your priority achievements?
  • How will you know when the end-point of an S-Curve has been reached?

Let me know how you get on please. What are your priorities? What timescales work for your regular planning and focussing?


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *