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.
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:
- Toxic Projects
- A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic
projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage
the organization — sometimes irreparably.
- Flanking Maneuvers
- Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields,
including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.
- Status Risk and Risk Status
- One often-neglected project risk is the risk of inaccurately reported status. That shouldn't be surprising,
because we often fail to report the status of the project's risks, as well. What can we do to better
manage status risk and risk status?
- Guidelines for Sharing "Resources"
- Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided
responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they
share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
- Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
- Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources.
Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
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