Over at Thinking Faster, Jeffrey Phillips shared an article from The Economist about projects taking longer than expected and going overbudget as a result. Jeffrey states that this is a result of "Sunny Side" thinking. In other words, planning as if everything goes according to plan with no obstacles or setbacks. Many project managers can be myopic in this area and not see the potential pot holes in the road ahead of their projects. Being aware of these stumbling blocks and developing a system to accurately project deadlines can bring projects in on time and under budget.
From time to time, we all find ourselves responsible for projects at home as well as at the office. David Allen defines a project as something that has more than one next action that needs to be done to achieve an outcome. Items such as developing and publishing the department newsletter, developing a budget for the department, and painting the house fall into this category.
To begin developing an accurate time line for the project, one must consider all the next action steps required for its completion. This can be done on the Project Task List that is advocated in the book To Do, Doing, Done! by G. Lynne Snead and Joyce Wycoff. The large blank section of the form is for mind-mapping the project to get all the next actions visible. When the mind-map is complete, the next actions are then placed in order by due date. It also has a column to indicate the responsible party for the action for accountability and follow-up.
When developing this project plan, it is important to begin to think about the obstacles and possible delays that one may expect during the project, and build those into the mini-deadlines that are attached to each next action. In fact, the creation of contingency plans for addressing those obstacles should automatically be developed. One might never have to use them, but if an obstacle is hit, there is no time lost in switching to plan B.
A Project Duration Formula
Combine the awareness of obstacles and their need to have buffer time built into the project time line with a good project duration estimation formula and you'll begin to be more accurate in your ability to meet those project deadlines. Snead and Wycoff provide a simple way to calculate a realistic duration for the project or for the individual next actions within it:
- Te = Realistic time estimate
- To = Most optimistic time estimate (the Sunny Side estimate with no setbacks)
- Tp = Most pessimistic time estimate (with every obstacle happening)
- Tm = Most probable time estimate (this makes you think realistically; some setbacks happen, others don't)
Let's say we have a project of developing a departmental newsletter. The variables break down as follows:
- Tm = 14 days
- To = 10 days
- Tp = 30 days
The calculation would be:
Te = (10+(4X14)+30)/6
The best estimated duration for the project would be 16 days.
By applying both strategies of building in buffer time for obstacles and using a good project duration formula, consistency in estimating deadlines will develop. Being known as someone whose projects come in on time and under budget is always a career helper and improves one's perceived competence. Besides, it also makes us more confident in our abilities and that confidence helps to improve our performance, which boosts our confidence, which, again, elevates our performance. As one can see, there is such a thing as an upward spiral.