I don’t get to do it often, but I love sailing. I love the smell of the salt spray and the mental and physical engagement of using two opposing forces to control and propel a machine. It takes strategy and tactics to avoid obstacles, maximize speed, keep the ship afloat and reach your destination. The boats, the gear, the environment, they all add up to something special.
While I can’t say that I love project planning to the same extent as sailing, I enjoy the satisfaction of executing successful plans and completing projects that deliver meaningful value. Plans and projects are a means to the satisfaction of achieving a meaningful goal. If I want to reach a specific destination (goal), I need to plan and manage projects well. Life is a series of projects, like many sailing voyages, each with its own challenges, setbacks, achievements and rewards, including lessons learned from failure.
Is there a useful parallel between sailing and managing a project? I think there is, starting with:
- The destination/goal – Every sailing trip has a destination. Every project has a goal. Some are far beyond the horizon, involving many unknown variables, like a trip across the Atlantic (i.e. starting a new company, launching a new product). Other voyages are brief, repeating and rely on a standard process, like ferrying cars & people across a harbor.
- The boat/plan - Successful sailing voyages require the right kind of boat. Successful projects require the right kind of plan. Both allow you and your crew (project team) to sail through calm and rough conditions, giving you the greatest chance of reaching your destination. If well designed and constructed for the journey, a solid boat, like a solid plan, will stay afloat in difficult conditions, allowing water to roll on an off its deck, to pitch, heel and climb through high surf, without sinking.
- The crew/team – someone needs to maintain and guide the boat, to keep it afloat and on course to reach the destination. Boats require different size crews. For some, one team member can and must fill multiple roles, like captain, navigator, cook, engineer… others require a team of 10 or more. Plans are similar. Start up founders may be the voice of the customer, the engineer, sales person, accountant, etc. Large enterprise projects may include an army of developers, or contractors and fabricators if the project involves construction. If you’re smart and lucky, you have authority and resources to assemble a good team each time you set out, but no matter what, every project requires a minimum set of roles to execute the plan to successfully reach the destination.
Where the metaphor breaks down
It’s convenient to compare sailing to managing a project, but project management today is more like sailing in the 15th century rather than the 21st century. We have a lot of tools, but beyond routine short-term projects, on average, we lack the skills necessary to make high-value, long-term project planning reliably successful. The phenomenon of “the planning fallacy” identified by behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman & Amos Tyversky in Israel in 1979 is one plausible reason why.
The Planning Fallacy
As proposed by Kahneman and Tyversky, the Planning Fallacy “is a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.”* In simpler terms, we habitually think future tasks will take a lot less time and effort than they eventually do. We have an inherent bias toward being optimistic when we assess our skill and ability to perform tasks. Reality, very often, proves us wrong.
Per Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast & Slow”, we greatly underestimate the risk and impact of external forces on our ability to complete tasks and achieve results. For example, we decide to build a product but ignore the competitive alternatives already in place in the market. The product launches into a crowded market without significant differentiation, and the business fails. Or we estimate that we can write a book in six months, even though we’ve never written a book before. We ignore all of the external life distractions that will ultimately pull us away from the work of writing, or underestimate how much research needs to be done and miss the deadline by a year. This happens – all – of – the –time. Doctoral studies? Writing a master’s thesis? It’s only an anecdotal observation, but how often do you hear a post-graduate student wax on happily about the joy of completing those long research projects required to complete a thesis? We often make up for our inaccuracies by cramming, using extra effort and self-imposed pressure to make up the difference. This habit seems to lower satisfaction in undertaking the project and may lead to poor work or worse, damaging results (ex. rushing an unsafe or poorly designed product to market). Per Kahneman, we tend to be habitually overconfident in our abilities and turn a blind eye to the impact that outside forces will exert to undermine our efforts.
We can do better, right?
When it comes to new projects, we don’t plan well. The bigger and more complex the project, the less likely we are to succeed. When we look externally, we don’t see the failures of others before we see their success. We assume success is much easier to achieve than it is in reality. So what can we do? In “Thinking Fast & Slow”, Daniel Khaneman has some general suggestions including the following:
- Take an “outside view” - Before you begin, look for “base rates” that apply to your project. Base rates are statistical references that help conceptualize the prior or existing probability of what is likely to happen in the future. An example is data that shows the failure rate for startup businesses. If thousands of people have started businesses similar to mine and 90% of them ultimately failed, I would benefit by considering that base rate as objectively as possible to avoid or mitigate the mostly likely reasons for failure.
- Write an obituary for your project before you begin – Another useful suggestion from Kahneman includes writing a postmortem assessment of why the project failed before you start the project. This activity provides a safe opportunity to objectively assess the likley reasons that a project could eventually fail. Once identified, the project plan can be adapted to avoid or directly mitigate those risks. If risks are unavoidable, the project can be suspended until the something changes to help mitigate those risks from the pre-postmortem assessment.
We're due for an upgrade
Unlike sailing, we can’t go to a dealer to order a pre-built plan with all of the right lines and rigging for our next project. We have to design it and build it. If we're not used to doing it, plan building, like ship building, seems daunting, but there are some well tested methods that we can reference. Project planning methods like Agile/SCRUM, Waterfall and others provide a rough blueprint that we can follow when creating a plan. But we still have to tailor those methods to the specific requirements of our project. If we are not skilled plan builders, but we rely on planning to make our daily filet and to achieve meaningful goals, then we have a significant gap that will continue to undermine our success. Closing that gap will add a lot of value to your work and personal lives.
Meanwhile, A Skill to Practice
Over the past one hundred years, long distance travel has been transformed with many critical innovations, yet we tackle projects with tools mostly based on long lists and through brute emotional force. The techniques in many cases are manually intensive and are akin to the how we handled navigation in age of sail. Our 15th century planning capabilities won’t upgrade overnight. Cloud applications, social networks and shared learning, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) assisted decision making are advanced rapidly with great potential to help us overcome the underpinning biases associated with the planning fallacy. In the meantime, if we want to minimize failure and realize greater satisfaction in achieving our goals now, we need to upgrade our planning skills through awareness of our biases, education about effective planning methods and practice, deliberate, effortful practice.
Want to hear more on this topic, check out our bimonthly podcast, BaseOne. Episode #1 features a discussion on the planning fallacy. You can find it here.
*The Planning Fallacy - Wikipedia, 2017
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