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.
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 . 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:
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated
with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less
attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets
- Managing Non-Content Risks: II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand
— content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are
outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those
that relate to organizational politics.
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Just-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
- Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops."
Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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