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

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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More articles on Project Management:

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When projects near completion, we sometimes have difficulty letting go. We want what we've made to be perfect, sometimes beyond the real needs of customers. Comfort with imperfection can help us meet budget and schedule targets.
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Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
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Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
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Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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