Once A Project Manager, Always A Project Manager

Oct 14, 2020

The challenge of optimism bias

Parent teacher nights are a PM’s nightmare. On the upside, everyone loves to hear how well the kids are doing. But my inner PM is never far from the surface… so I’m not the guy who turns up late. In fact, my organised self is always there a little early. Only to sit, watching the clock tick away, as someone else’s poor planning becomes my problem. Because, as sure as death and taxes, you just know your slot’s going to be delayed. 

It’s not that the teachers aren’t trying, or that other parents don’t get it. The issue is an inherent optimism bias in the timing of slots. Teachers overestimate their ability to keep things on track – forgetting no-one wants to stop an interview in full flow, or leave off a question that’s just getting interesting. So each individual meeting runs over, creating a cumulative death by a thousand cuts. All those extra one or two minutes add up, so by the time you’re in the hot seat not only are you running late, but likely frustrated at the wasted time in your busy schedule. 

And here’s the thing. This isn’t a one off. This happens every year – and surprises no-one. The school’s inherent bias towards optimism means reality is never addressed. So instead of having the difficult discussions about the timing of slots, schools let parents pay the price of an overestimation of ability and capacity.

Planning for a happy sponsor

Optimism bias isn’t just an issue at schools. Overestimation due to optimism is the dirty secret of many a project failure. It’s human nature to overestimate your team’s capability, especially with heroic PM’s who don’t like to disappoint. So estimates are built to please sponsors and deadlines, rather than accurately reflect the working environment. Plans based on unrealistic expectations are doomed from the start. And no amount of team building morning tea or late night pizza delivery will turn this around. Once you’re off track, there’s no way back, not without drastic surgery. 

Sponsors in this position can negotiate with the delivery team, or try to beat down their estimates. But this is just magical thinking. Instead, a sponsor needs to pause the project and deal with the true facts. Without an intervention an under pressure team is unlikely to step back and see the big picture. This means small problems compound. Everyone is so busy they can’t see the underlying issues. 

If this sounds like your project, or you’re a sponsor realising your timings are unrealistic, it’s your credibility and maybe even career on the line. An independent view to your project’s status is what you need to get on track.