Boston's Big Dig, the largest highway project in U.S. history, was originally projected to cost about $2 billion. The price now is over $14 billion. I don't know why they're over budget, but I do know that there has been intense pressure to hold costs down. Maybe part of their problem is the pressure to reduce costs.
Since the need to cut costs suggests that earlier estimates were off, why do we believe the new estimates? They're usually made under extreme time pressure, and with obvious bias. They might even be worse than the estimates they replace.
Yet, we do it and we do it again. Whenever we cut budgets, we risk cutting too much. And then we must deal with a hard truth: if we cut too much, the project will likely cost even more than if we hadn't cut at all.
When we cut too much, new mechanisms — many invisible — kick in, and all are beyond the control of project management. Uncontrolled processes lead to uncontrolled costs, and that's why cutting too much raises costs. Some examples:
- Responding to the call for cuts, people re-estimate their work, knowing that only the "right answers" can save their pieces of the project. Unaware, they bias their estimates. Overruns are inevitable.
- When we charge time to one project and work on another, or when we "borrow" equipment, we're bootlegging. It's widespread, and it's completely off the books.
- Excessive budget
which is hard
- If we believe that we won't gain approval for additional staff, we might be tempted to keep some people we have, even when we don't really need them, because we doubt that we can get them back when we do need them again. So when money is tight, we find some people sitting around.
- Bingeing and purging
- When an organization goes through a sequence of "freezes," it inevitably goes through a matching sequence of thaws. During thaws we grab whatever we can. Often, this grab goes beyond satisfying backlogged needs, and becomes a true binge. Like squirrels burying acorns, we acquire what we can whether we need it or not.
- When budgets are tight, we sometimes defer addressing problems. For example, if a project is late, we shorten testing. This defers discovery of problems, often until after the product ships, when resolving the problems is even more expensive. The project cost is reduced, but the cost to the enterprise climbs dramatically.
One symptom of resource starvation is the urge to make every effort "count" towards the ultimate deliverable. For a discussion of the downside of this approach, see "Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best," Point Lookout for March 14, 2007.
Projects never go
quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- The Politics of Lessons Learned
- Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political
subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
- When Change Is Hard: II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance."
But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still
encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
- Ego Depletion and Priority Setting
- Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy
for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: II
- When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can
affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive
- Risk Creep: II
- When risk events occur, and they're of a kind we never considered before, it's possible that we've somehow
invited those risks without realizing we have. This is one way for risk to creep into our efforts. Here's
Part II of an exploration of risk creep.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
- Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
- And on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.
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