I’m sure you’ve said it as often as I have: “This will only take a minute…” Five hours later, you’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Humans are notoriously bad at estimating how long something will take. On top of that, we try to make our problem solving too complex when things go wrong. When these two dynamics combine, our projects go flying off the rails like the first ever run of the Jamaican bobsled team. The result is projects that are late, overbudget, and full of errors. The good news is there are a couple of simple rules to keep in mind that can prevent these issues.
By way of an example, I needed a new keg of beer for my kegerator. It had been a while since I replaced the empty. “This won’t take long – I’ll just go buy a new keg and lickety split I’ll be sipping a cold one.” You see where this is going, right?
My initial estimate was said “project” would cost me about $130 for a new keg plus gas. I figured it would take me about an hour all-in (drive time plus installation). In case you’re wondering why today’s blog post is about 12 hours late, you can blame my beer. Things didn’t go exactly as planned…
First, I had a $20 negative variance to my financial plan because I hadn’t factored in the age of the old keg and that they didn’t carry that brand anymore. They could only give me $10 of my original $30 deposit back. Okay… no big. $20. I could live with that.
When I got home, things got screwy. First, when I went to tap the keg, a piece of the tap had fallen out which, when I connected said tap, caused beer to spray everywhere(at least my hair is silky smooth from my beer treatment). Once I cleaned up and found the part that had fallen (10 minutes), I reconnected everything but no cold refreshing beer came out of the tap.
I had to dismantle the system piece by piece to see where the issue was. After testing all the components (90 minutes) I learned I had a broken faucet. I had to go to the web, search for someone who sold replacements, and buy a new one ($120 and 20 minutes plus 2 days for delivery).
Net net my 1 hour, $130 project had turned into a 3 hour, $260 fiasco.
So what does my kegerator gone awry have to do with your projects? Everything.
Timelines are ALWAYS too aggressive
All projects suffer from excessive optimism especially on timelines. We think things will go perfectly and fail to plan for hiccups along the way. That failure then gets compounded by all the tasks dependent on the one we’re screwing up.
Plan for failure. Build in a substantial hedge for your timelines. Things will go wrong. By allowing for such expansion of timelines, you’re going to keep dependent tasks lined up and increase your odds of finishing on schedule.
True NPV = (Initial NPV Estimate)/2*0.80
Cost estimates are always low and revenue estimates are always high. Over all the projects I’ve worked on I’ve adopted a rule of taking the initial NPV estimate, cutting it in half and then subtracting another 20% from that.
Doing so gets me much closer to a realistic number. It also leads to more rigorous project prioritization. If I’m still excited about it at this dramatically reduced NPV, there’s a high likelihood I’ll be pleased with the actual financial results. Build in a pessimistic case to ensure you underpromise and overdeliver.
Take A Systems Approach to Problem Solving
This was the one thing I did right in my little beer project. When the system failed, I avoided the human tendency to change a bunch of things and then retest. Such an approach guarantees you won’t find the root problem very quickly. Complex problem solving often doesn’t solve the problem – it simply complicates it more.
Take a systems approach – check one variable at a time to see if it’s the root of the problem. I tested the tank, the hose, the tap, the next hose, and finally the faucet. Sure it was the last piece I tested but I was sure I had found my root problem. This approach helped me spend my $120 on the replacement correctly rather than buying multiple new system components that didn’t need to be replaced.
Simplify the problem solving. Doing so will help you hone in on your issue much more quickly. This approach reduces costs and time to market.
I’m anxiously awaiting my replacement faucet. It should only take me 10 minutes to install it and have a beer (I hope…).
What common issues have you seen derail projects? What easy tips do you have for others to improve their odds of project success?