Pessimism in Project Management.


Even in a shop where no one thing goes wrong 99% of the time, you may be looking at close to 99% of projects not working out as expected. Thank you statistics. Here’s a quick example:

Ye Olde Design Shoppe:
15% chance that client will desire extra design revisions
5% chance each of your three designers and programmers will be ill at some point
1% chance of hardware failure (usually dropped laptops these days)
5% chance a client will be delayed in getting back to you for their own emerg
10% chance that another project will overlap this one and sap resources

The chances of your project not encountering *any* problems is then
0.85*(0.95* 0.95* 0.95)*0.99*0.95*0.90 =  0.62 =62%

This means that there is a 62% chance of your project not encountering any of these problems.

There is a role for pessimism, though on its own, it’s pretty grim indeed. In the context of creative projects the Goldilocks Triple could apply:

Not enough pessimism:
Unrealistic deadlines, scope, promises

Too much pessimism:
Creativity and new capbility traded for what’s known and safe. Lack of innovation and missed opportunities.

Pessimism Level just right:
Double checking, due dilligence, backups, contingency plans, goals met

Realism and healthy skeptisim have to be mixed with taking the right risks and always pushing for something innovative and inspiring to the team. Even in a project planning phase, when every step is Ghanted to the half-day, some pessimism has to applied: what about competing projects, illness in the team, clieents-side personnel changes? Hardware failures? It’s all happenned before, and to build a plan around absense of failure at any point is a gamble that loses much more often as risk factors are ignored.

In real life it is hard to assign probabilities or account for all eventualities, but the rough idea is that alot of 1% risks that all affect a project can suddenly make success and on-time delivery an unlikely outcome. Quantitatively pessimism is the excercise of reviewing these risks and looking at some of the worse possible outcomes. The result? you can address the worst risks through timeline padding, staffing plans, hardware backups, flushots, and contract clauses. Boring like a seatbelt is better than exciting like the Titanic.

Questions to ask your team:

  • How are risk and opportunity are perceived, pursued and planned for?
  • At what point in the project is appropriate pessimism applied?  

I suppose this could be a note about optimism’s or risk’s role instead, but that is another topic: team and individual perspective!

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