In Antifragility: Things That Gain from Disorder Nicholas Taleb says: “when you add uncertainty to projects, they tend to cost more and take longer to complete.” He compares today’s projects, which are rarely completed on time, to “large-scale projects [such as the London Crystal Palace] a century and a half ago [that] were completed on time.” The London Crystal Palace had glass and cast iron parts “built not far from the source,” didn’t involve computers or business-school-taught “project management” and was, according to Taleb, the product, overall, of a more linear and less complex economy than we have today.
Today’s projects are affected not just by the “planning fallacy” (business psychologist’s theory that “projects take longer, rarely less time” due to psychological factors – like overconfidence) but also primarily, for Taleb, by the fact that we have “more nonlinearities – asymmetries, convexities – in today’s world.” The issue is that “There is an asymmetry in the way errors hit you…”
Taleb says that: “Just as time cannot be negative, a three-month project cannot be completed in zero or negative time. So, on a timeline going left to right, errors add to the right end, not the left end of it. If uncertainty were linear we would observe some projects completed extremely early… But this is not the case.”
My understanding of Taleb’s arguments is definitely weak – I couldn’t stand up to questioning of how concave and convex nonlinearity work, and I don’t get any of the math – but I do “get” that there’s significant nonlinear uncertainty in projects today and an asymmetry in the way errors (or events) hit us.
Reading Antifragile and talking with friends has led me to think about the asymmetry of events on projects and four reasons why they sometimes take (much) longer than originally projected.
Most organizations seem to be “running lean” today, which means there isn’t a lot of built-in redundancy. If a senior person on a project leaves for a new job, the project stalls while a new person is found and brought up-to-speed. And sometimes that new person, not surprisingly, has new ideas. Replacing personnel, educating them, and exploring their new ideas adds to the right end of the timeline. And this can happen both internally and on the client’s side.
Possible answers: Flatter teams, with knowledge and authority more broadly disseminated. Better succession planning, better systems for knowledge transfer.
2) Information Technology
IT adds a layer (or three) of complexity to project planning. Changes in technical scope – such as the decision to pull from a database or add new functionality – can significantly skew a digital project’s timeline.
Possible answers: Simplify projects, clarify boundaries (define projects clearly) and adhere to the scope. Maybe we need a system for evaluating the impact of a new IT issue and a decision-making apparatus that allows for quick assessment of whether a change is necessary, and how it will affect a project.
3) New Information
In projects with short timelines, new information may sneak by. But in a project spanning several months, new information can change everything. Finding out from the data analytics people that your demographic has shifted could lead to a much better product or service. It could also send you back to the drawing board. In our sped-up industry, new information comes fast and has to be dealt with equally quickly.
Possible answer: Planning teams/strategists/tech experts – integrated with the project – who, as with IT, can rapidly assess new information and decide whether or not it should impact a specific project.
4) Shifts in Purpose or Focus
The digital property you began a month ago was conceived to increase loyalty and customer retention. Suddenly, the focus has shifted to selling widgets. Economic forces result in reactive changes as organizations struggle to deal with uncertainty and/or falling sales.
Possible answer: Again, careful planning and alignment of goals and outcomes is key here. Smaller and/or more scalable projects may be the best way to deal with economic volatility and changing goals.
If you’re interested in reading Taleb (who also wrote The Black Swan), get Antifragile here.