How a reality check could save your project

Dec 10, 2021

Optimism is inherently a positive word. It is exactly what our teachers and parents tried to instil within us. However, when it comes to managing a project, it can in fact be the biggest enemy your team could have.

Overconfidence and over-optimism can result in unrealistic milestones and deadlines. These milestones and deadlines may well have been created with the best intentions, but most often they will have been created to keep key stakeholders’ interests high. Unfortunately, this can backfire when your project starts to fall apart. This could be in the form of missed milestones, budgets being blown, or even when your loyal team-mates begin to show signs of apprehension, asking for extensions of time. 

If your entire project is predicated upon an analysis of costs and schedules that have little room for error, then all the small problems might begin to compound, leading to your project blowing its budget and running outside of its framed schedule. If you expect to deliver without setbacks along the way, then without even analysing your project, I can safely say it will have a very slim chance of succeeding. And that’s not me being pessimistic. That is me being realistic.

Nobody likes Mr. Realism. In fact, quite often, they are the ones that can bring a cheering room to silence. They are the ones that can stir doubts in people’s minds. But ultimately, they are necessary. Especially when it comes to managing highly complex projects. If you can expect the unexpected, then chances are that if your project’s wheels start to come loose, you will have the right tools on hand to get it back up and running and back on track.

There are six typical ways in which optimism can negatively impact your project:

1. Overconfidence. Otherwise known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Overconfidence can lead to unrealistic deadlines and an underestimation of what is required.

2. Oversimplification. Much like the above an overly optimistic PM can use assumptions as opposed to direct figures. This can lead to overambitious and unrealistic goals.

3. Avoiding pain. If you always convince yourself that you will catch up at the next milestone – you will never truly address the issues beneath the surface.

4. Confirmation Bias. This can be when 99 signs point towards there being issues with your project, but you focus on the 1 sign of positivity.

5. Availability Cascade. This is where the vision of the project gets repeated enough times that the vision of the project and the realistic expectations of the project get confused.

6. Perceptual Bias. And finally, this is where Project Managers focus on individual details as opposed to taking that much needed step back and assessing the full picture of the project, especially when under pressure.

If you and your team cannot see what is going wrong, then sometimes the best thing you can do is bring in an independent expert who can get to the root of the problem. As the saying goes – you cannot see the wood for the trees. An independent project manager could be exactly what your project needs. To find its flaws, and to help you re-evaluate the course and strategy that your project requires.

So yes, optimism is a beautiful thing, but it can also be a disastrous and erratic form of managing. Our project managers know the balance and can ensure that optimism does not lead to the downfall of your project’s goals.