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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

The Seven Truths of Projects

It’s up to the project team to prove them false

Published: Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 11:34

Recently I wrote an article about 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 myriad project ups and downs, ins and outs, and fits and starts.

From those experiences I’ve come to know seven seemingly unshakable truths about projects:
1. A major project is never completed on time, within budget, or with the original team, and it never does exactly what it was supposed to.
2. Projects progress quickly until they become 85-percent complete. Then they remain 85-percent 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, 10 estimators will estimate the same work in 10 different ways. And one estimator will estimate 10 different ways at 10 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 oversell. At the same time, we underestimate, 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.

First published Aug. 16, 2013, on the Edit Innovation blog. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.


Well said

I'm currently in the middle of proving a few of these false...and having varying degrees of success!