The 7 Truths of Projects

Last week I wrote a post on picking projects. But picking right is just the start. Then comes the planning, prep, and project management. Over the course of nearly three decades, I’ve experienced the myriad of ups and downs, ins and outs, and fits and starts of projects.

Over the course of that time, I’ve come to seven seemingly unshakable truths about projects:

  1. A major project is never completed on time, withinbudget, or with the original team, and it never does exactly what it was supposed to.
  2. Projects progress quickly until they become 85% complete. Then they remain 85% complete forever. Think of this as the Home Improvement Law.
  3. When things appear to be going well, you’ve overlooked something. When things can’t get worse, they will. (Murphy’s Law says, “If something can go wrong, it will”—this is a corollary).
  4. Project teams hate weekly progress reports because they so vividly manifest the lack of progress.
  5. A carelessly planned project will take three times longer to complete than expected. A carefully planned project will only take twice as long as expected. Also, ten estimators will estimate the same work in ten different ways. And one estimator will estimate ten different ways at ten different times.
  6. The greater the project’s technical complexity, the less you need a technician to manage it.
  7. If you have too few people on a project, they can’t solve the problems. If you have too many, they create more problems than they can solve.

Why do these truths exist? Mainly because our eyes are bigger than our tummies. We have delusions of success. We take on more than we should, routinely exaggerating the benefits and discounting the costs. We over-scope, over-scale, and over-sell. At the same time, we under-estimate, under-resource, and under-plan.

Why? Maybe it’s our Yankee pioneer genetics. Call it a bias for optimism. We have a tendency to exaggerate our own abilities. We have tendency to take credit for success and blame failure on external events. We also exaggerate the degree of control we have over events. (Ever read an annual report? A boom year is chalked up to managerial brilliance. A bust year is due to events beyond management’s control.)

Projects—even small ones—are complex and challenging. Interests often compete and conflict. Individual performance varies widely. Continual shifts in direction and frequent stalls that slow momentum demand constant planning, adjustment, and improvisation—skills that only come with battle scars.

Here’s the thing: The truths of projects are made to be proven false. In fact they must be proven false for even the best-picked project to be successful.