Project optimism bias

‘I’ve re-profiled this project plan twice already and I’m on the verge of having to do it again a third time.’

‘I bet you have to do it again as the supplier has never hit a timescale yet.’

How many times have you heard such a conversation?  How many times have you been in one?  It happened again to me earlier this week in a high profile major systems implementation.  We had fallen into the classic trap of setting a date by which we had to have everything completed without any real thought as to whether or not it was achievable.  It was a guess based upon wild optimism and a desire to please.

Why is it that humans are so bad at estimating and why do we keep insisting that this is the way that projects should be run?  I think there are three biases at work.  The first is an optimism bias from the supplier or provider.  They find themselves in a competitive situation and so will always err on the side of what the customer wants to hear.  Like puppies their sole purpose is to please their (pay)masters.  So when they are asked can this be done in three months they will pinch themselves and promise to give it a damn good go.

The second is a lack of understanding bias on behalf of the client.   They invariably underestimate the complexity of the task in hand.  The organisations in which we work are highly complex and the systems that support them are subsequently complicated.  Nearly all applications have a high degree of interdependence on other systems and process which of course means you are relying on other teams to deliver on time, who may not have knowledge of the importance of what you are doing.  Clients will, therefore, underestimate the time required to deliver a project.

Finally there is a project methodology bias in that we have come blind to the fact that plans, GANTT charts and the like don’t work.  No matter how often we draw them up, rewrite them and re-profile we will end up scratching our heads and wonder where it all went wrong.  When the project team first meets up it is sponsored by a senior member of the organisation.  Everyone on the project wants to be seen as a deliverer to enhance their career and so a machismo develops around how hard each of us can push and who is most dedicated to the task.

So the supplier underestimates to win the business, the client underestimates due to lack of understanding and the project board underestimates to give the impression of being important.

It won’t be long then until I end up in the same conversation.

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