The first time I heard someone mention “student syndrome” was during a training of Mike Cohn about seven or eight years ago. Student syndrome is what happens when someone estimates how long it will take to get something done, adds some slack, starts late using up the slack and then finds out that the task indeed will take longer and consequently finish the task late. This looks somewhat like to image below.
For some reason this remains to be an attractive way of planning for many people. Recently, I heard a respected and experienced project manager, let’s call her Karin, even make a suggestion that unintentionally motivated a team member, let’s call him Mike, to show this behavior. Mike needed to finish some work and expected it to take about an hour. However, it was close to the end of the day and Mike would have a day off. This basically meant that the work would not be done before the Sprint Review meeting and a User Story remained unfinished. Of course that could not be the case if it was up to Karin. So Karin decided to address Mike and pointed out that with a bit more commitment the work should be done before the Sprint Review meeting. The suggestion was to come in a bit early after Mike’s day off and finish it just in time for the review.
I guess we can agree that this was a proper corrective action to address to Mike that he’d committed to finishing this User Story the day before. Karin addressed both commitment and accountability. What she did not anticipate however, is that she invited Mike to potentially suffer the same consequences as Student Syndrome. What if Mike had not even taken into account some slack? One small setback and the User Story would still not have been finished in time.