Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 12;   March 21, 2001: The Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources

The Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources

by

Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"

BBoston'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.

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, part of Boston's Big Dig, while it was still under construction. Defects directly traceable to budget cuts led to numerous problems in the project's tunnels, and probably are tied to the death of one tunnel user. Photo courtesy the Big Dig.

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:

Wishing
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.
Bootlegging
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.
Hoarding
Excessive budget
cuts encourage
"underground" behavior,
which is hard
to control
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.
Deferring
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.

Find out if any of this stuff is happening in your organization. If it's increasing, perhaps you're trying to run projects with budgets that are too small. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Slippery Slope That Isn't  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects 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 . Order Now! .

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.

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Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.
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Although taking on too many projects risks defocusing the organization, the problems just begin there. Here are three more ways over-commitment causes organizations to waste resources or lose opportunities.
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Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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