Why your next project is doomed from the start

wednesdayYou have an important meeting next Wednesday. Your boss sends you an email to say the meeting is being moved forwards by two days.   So do you put it in the diary for Monday or Friday?   This was a question posed at an excellent talk on ‘the science of time’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week.   I, as well as about 50% of the audience put my hand up for Monday, but the other half insisted it must be Friday. So why the discrepancy? And who’s right?

Well there’s a psychology at play here.   If you see events in the future as moving towards you (maybe it’s something you’re not looking forward to, like a dental appointment or a difficult meeting) you’re more likely to process the message as the event moving further towards you.   In this case, you’d assume the meeting was now on the Monday, giving you less time.   However, if you see events as you moving towards them, you are the one thrusting ahead and therefore the event moving “forwards by two days” will feel more distant, hence Friday. Try it out with your colleagues.

The presentation last week also touched on what is known as the ‘planning fallacy’ – the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running.   Imagine that you were given two tasks to complete – one quick but boring and the other time-consuming but rewarding. Now imagine that you could do one tomorrow and one in six weeks time, what choice would you make?  Most of us would choose the quick/boring task first. We’d put the time-consuming task off in the (mistaken) belief that by then we’d have more time. But of course, we rarely do.   We don’t take into account the fact that in six weeks time there will be other unexpected things taking up our time, and that we’re likely to be just as busy as we are now, if not more.

The planning fallacy, first coined by economist Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking Fast & Slow, can be seen everywhere in business, and indeed in government where ambitious budget and spending forecasts routinely fail to take into account delays, obstacles and unexpected events.  Here’s a quote:   “When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on rational weighting of gains, losses and probabilities.   They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios for success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.”   What I learned last week is that, whilst we tend to exaggerate our own ability to forecast the future, we tend to be more pessimistic about the forecasting of others.  If I asked you to predict how long it will take you to complete a detailed task, and then asked an uninvolved observer to say how long they think you would take, the observer would almost certainly choose a longer, and probably more realistic, timeframe.

It’s worth us communicators understanding the impact of the planning fallacy, but we probably also fall under its spell just as easily. Company strategies, annual plans, change projects all come with timelines attached, but be honest, how often are these timelines realistic?   Project managers are notoriously over-ambitious when forecasting. I can barely think of a single project I’ve worked on that’s delivered on time and budget. Perhaps the trick, when forecasting how long something is going to take, is to ask someone else how long they think it will take you and use that figure. It’s probably more accurate.

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