Why Projects Always Seem to be Late…

You’ve met those people. Their glass always seems to be half full – at a minimum. How are they always so positive? So optimistic? Even if you don’t consider yourself an optimist, you’ve likely fallen victim of the optimism bias.

The optimism bias is a cognitive condition we all have to deal with – and its manifestation in the workplace often results in the proverbial overpromise and underdeliver. So what it is generally? The optimism bias is the nature of humans to be overly confident that bad shit won’t happen to them. The bad stuff usually inhibits success in one way or another. This was observed in the ‘80’s in studies with college students. These students systematically believed that bad stuff wouldn’t happen to them (divorce, drinking problems) while simultaneously reporting a higher likelihood that good stuff would (owning a home, living a long life).

Now, having a positive outlook is a good thing. It can be motivating for a team and lead to better output. In the workplace, managing expectations against reality is really really important. Finding the right balance between optimism and reality (not calling it pessimism 🙂 ) is key. When you commit to delivering a project by a certain date, ask yourself the hard questions: what could go wrong? If something went wrong, how would it impact our ability to deliver on time? Is there enough slack in our timeline to absorb the inevitable challenges we’ll find ourselves up against.

The answer to those questions is almost always no. And that’s why projects always seem to late. Give yourself (and your team) more time – manage expectations against reality and be aware of your optimism bias.

There’s a great TED Talk from Tali Sharot on the optimism bias. She’s got a whole book on the topic – The Science of Optimism. Highly recommend.


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