A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



What did I talk about at "Late and Over-Budget"? Commitment and Consistency

Next Late and Over-Budget Seminar is 6:30 at the Half Moon Theatre on Tuesday 10th December 2013

In this first Late and Over-Budget Seminar I talked about the main reason that being a project manager on a late and over-budget project feels so bad. The reason is that one of the most powerful human urges is to be consistent with our commitments. If we say that we are going to do something, we want later to honour those commitments because, put bluntly, people who are inconsistent with their commitments are either mad or bad. The power of this desire of people to be consistent with their commitments is discussed at length in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Cialdini discusses a number of experiments where people have been asked to make a very minimal commitment, and then have been persuaded to all sorts of quite onerous tasks on the back of that commitment. This example from Cialdini's book (and it contains many more) is worth quoting in full:

a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighbourhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public service billboard to be installed in their front lawns. To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority(83 percent) of the to other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favourably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.

The prime reason for their startling compliance has to do with something that had happened to them about two weeks earlier: They had made a small commitment to driver safety. A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous.

This is why project management feels so bad. We've made commitments - in the form of plans and estimates and deadlines. And when we don't honour those commitments we feel bad. Also, people who understand how the principle of commitment and consistency works can exploit this bad feeling (Cialdini refers to these people as "Compliance Professionals") and get all manner of concessions out you once you've made a commitment.

This sounds pretty bad, but actually, it gets worse. Because there is another psychological tendency, to which we all tend to fall prey that means that when it comes to making plans and predictions about our performance on a set of tasks - exactly the kind of thing we're doing in project management - we're particularly bad. This psychological tendency is known as the planning fallacy and is described by the nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking Fast and Slow" as the planning fallacy. To quote the wikipedia entry on the "planning fallacy."

The planning fallacy is a tendency for people and organizations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running [...] the effect has been found for predictions of a wide variety of tasks, including tax form completion, school work, furniture assembly, computer programming and origami.

I've italicised the bit that makes this particularly scary. We tend to underestimate how long task will take and how much work is involved, whilst at the same time overestimate the benefits that we'll gain. And this problem is called a "fallacy" because it is an affliction that all humans suffer from. Mix this together with the awesome power of commitment and consistency and you have one hell of a double whammy.

So what can you do about this? What can you do if you're put in the position of having to generate plans and estimates, knowing that you're first going to fall prey to the planning fallacy and then, because of the rules of commitment and consistency feel bad about it?

Well there are a couple of things that you can do to ease the pain - I'm not saying that you can make it go away. The first is to understand the ways of curing the planning fallacy. The first thing that you can do is to take an outside view rather than an inside view. When predicting how long a project takes, people tend to make a list of all the tasks that are involved in a project and then imagine themselves - or their fellow team members - doing them in the shortest, most optimistic amount of time possible. This gives what Kahneman calls the inside view - and it is this view that consistently underestimates how long projects will take. An alternative is to take an outside view and ask questions like "how long did projects similar to this one actually take?" (often the answer is several times that of the inside view estimate). Another way to cure yourself of the optimism of the "inside view" is rather than estimating how long a project with take your team to do, estimating how long it will take another team - a team of people you don't know, of only average ability and with an average level of interruptions and complications.

So it is always good when you're starting a project to be aware of the outside view - how have other projects like this one faired recently? If the last six project this organisation did overran by two hundred percent, that gives you some kind of indication about how this one will do. But also, if you're running things in an Agile way, it's good to try to cure yourself of the inside view in small doses by checking your progress at the end of every iteration.

A crucial concept that Kahneman talks about all through his book "Thinking Fast and Slow" is abbreviated to WYSIATI - What You See Is All There Is. Lots of weird, illogical behaviour can be explained by understanding that people only think using the things that are in their mind at that moment. This is interesting from a project management point of view because it gives us a possible way of changing people's thinking by putting extra things in their field of view. By showing them how long similar projects have taken in the past and showing them the actual progress on this project we are making them think. Yes, they will desperately try to stop us doing this, but there is only so long that their thinking can avoid incorporating things that are put within their field of vision.

So we've got some ideas on how to counter the planning fallacy. But how do we deal with the other half of the double whammy - with the pain of having committed to something that we then realise we can't deliver? The second thing that you can do is to commit to something else as well - and the research shows that it's better that you do this publicly in front of others, rather than secretly just to yourself - to communicating the truth about the project that you're working on all the way through. One of the guys came who came to the session articulated this as "This is the best understanding I have of what's going to happen - and when that changes, I will let you know."

One thing that I haven't tried - but I think it is worth trying - is to get the people who are making you commit to a plan to commit at the same time. When you're asked to commit to a plan, how about asking the senior stakeholders to commit to giving you a fair hearing when problems arise and to revise their budgets and timescales when delays that neither of you could anticipate affect the project? Worth a try.

Next Late and Over-Budget Seminar is 6:30 at the Half Moon Theatre on Tuesday 10th December 2013