It’s good to be optimistic, but in projects it can be a real problem

By Alison Smith

It is generally accepted that there are two types of people in this world – optimists and pessimists. It is often thought that pessimists are a negative force, but in projects perhaps the opposite is the case.

How many of us have been backed into a corner at a project meeting and end up inadvertently making a wild, and undeliverable promise, or claim? It’s so easy to make sweeping promises of what your project will be able to deliver in benefits, or to underestimate hidden costs that will take your project over budget, or miss the delivery deadline.

In projects this is known as Optimistic Planning Bias or OPB.

So now we’ve acknowledged its existence, we need to work out how you can make realistic plans. The way that I would suggest you start is to use what we use on Project Agency courses called the Chris Tarrant method. How this works is like on the show “Who wants to be a millionaire”, when the contestant has to “phone a friend” to help get help to get to the right answer. They phone their friend and ask the question, followed by answer A B C or D. It is then that you get to the beauty of this method: The person on the end of the phone will offer a percentage rating as to how confident they are in giving the answer that they have given. The alternative is that they give their answer, and then the contestant asks them “How sure are you that this is the answer?” This again is given as a percentage.

Ok this is not a totally scientific way of cutting down OPB, but it will give you feedback on how likely others feel your project will be able to deliver, or meet deadlines. It may also draw out potential risks that you had not thought of, as your colleagues elaborate on their confidence in what you are proposing. It is true that not every risk can be planned for , and that plans may have to change as the project evolves, but if you get/ give realistic feedback in project meetings it will help reduce the wider use of OPB.

This is just one way of looking at this issue, but I’d really like to hear your thoughts on how you manage OPB in your projects.

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2 Responses to It’s good to be optimistic, but in projects it can be a real problem

  1. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of August 5 – 11 | The Practicing IT Project ManagerThe Practicing IT Project Manager

  2. Pingback: Optimistic planning bias strikes again? | Project Management Training with Ron Rosenhead

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