What to do about project delays

Project Delays

I recently listened to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast called “Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It.” Its discussion of the human tendency to plan on getting stuff done, but often falling behind schedule and going over budget, struck home for me. I meant to write a post about project delays … so here I am today, having suffered for a month and a half from the most obvious component of the planning fallacy: procrastination.

If you’re like most people, you probably know about procrastination—but what’s the planning fallacy, you ask? The planning fallacy is a term coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky describing the “tendency to underestimate the time it will take to complete a project while knowing that similar projects have typically taken longer in the past,” according to psychology professor Roger Buehler.

It’s the kind of thinking that leads me to estimate one day editing a video for what actually takes three, what explains home renovation projects that take months beyond initially scoped, what accounts for the Second Avenue Subway not having been built until 2016 after the idea was proposed in 1968 (and even then, only partially and plagued with problems).

It’s not the only factor, however, and there’s a reason we can’t help but succumb to the planning fallacy: we’re optimists. We are idealistic about our own futures and plan on succeeding, which is a great thing according to cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, but the optimism bias blinds us from thinking through other less successful ways in which our plans may unfold.

Combine this with coordination neglect in which we don’t fully take into account all of the moving gears in the project and it’s no wonder that many get derailed from schedule.

My craft project: zither bookmarks

As a matter of fact, I’m currently in the midst of a craft project where I was sure I’d have the final product with time to spare. My initial deadline having passed, I have nothing but a prototype to show at this point. I had my design for this ready in a timely fashion but I still shoulder the blame for having expected that multiple other parties would move according to my schedule. First, my supplier informed me that the plywood I ordered was backordered. Then its shipment was pushed back another couple of weeks. Additionally, the person responsible for laser cutting my project has had to push back her availability going on three weeks, twice due to her schedule and once due to the necessary facilities being closed. This is a mini project with only a few moving parts. The thought of having to think through potential complications of a much larger project, on a municipal level for example, seems like an excellent way to induce a headache.

So what do we do about all this?

Yael Grushka-Cockayne, a teacher of project management and decision-making, says “If you’re planning project X that you’re about to start — ignore project X.” This is called reference-class forecasting when you stop focusing on the specific project at hand and instead, look at historical data. She advises looking at projects executed in the past that are similar to project X and seeing how their estimates measured up to the actual numbers and timeline. That’ll give you a more accurate idea of what project X will actually require.

The solution is historical data.

So the solution is data. Instead of human judgment, we need to assess and plan for a project based on historical data. On the other hand, the podcast makes a point that should not be missed: many projects would just never take off if not for the optimism bias and thinking that it would get done faster and easier than it actually will.

I can also attest to this. I’m in the midst of a recording project now that has grown far beyond what I had initially scoped in time, money, and energy. Two generous days planned in the studio has grown to a tight twelve, a few months has increased to a year at minimum, and the budget is now at nearly six times the number I originally had in my head.

Would I have initiated this project had I known it would grow to what it is now? No way.
Am I upset about this? Not in the least. I’m really excited about it actually.

If I knew what I was getting myself into at the beginning, it would have seemed an insurmountable task that I would not have been willing to tackle. But, thankfully, I was a fool who didn’t think much through and now I’m happily deep into the project and will have an album out in the fall (if I learned anything from this Freakonomics episode, 2019 at the earliest).

Don’t be so smart that planning stops you from accomplishing a vision you wouldn’t have dared to pursue, knowing the full costs involved.

So take into account the planning fallacy, the optimism bias, coordination neglect, and reference-class forecasting to avoid project delays. But don’t be so smart that they stop you from accomplishing a vision you wouldn’t have dared to pursue, knowing the full costs involved.

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