Daniel Kahneman, in this excerpt from his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, tells a story of a team tasked with developing a curriculum and textbook for teaching judgement and decision-making in high schools.
He asked the team how long they expected the task to take.
A year, two years – said the team.
He then asked his curriculum expert, a gentleman who had seen a number of these projects, “How long has it taken other teams to get something like this done?”
The expert’s experience – 7 – 10 years with a 40% failure rate. Ouch.
Result of the project developing that curriculum and textbook? 8 years, and the textbook was never adopted.
Kahneman defines two types of perspectives:
- Inside view – The estimate of the people doing the work
- Outside view – The estimate by an individual with experience with similar tasks and projects.
This problem with solely looking at the inside view, Kahneman argues, is that it focuses on current circumstances and extrapolates based on the information in front of them. Usually – the beginning of projects when people are excited and things are happening easily.
The inside view does not account for the “unknown unknowns”. In Kahneman’s examples, these were events that slow down the creation process – mostly through impacts on resource availability and focus, such as life. Another event he fondly calls “crises of coordination with bureaucracies” or approvals and the discovery of “new” stakeholders.
I have personally found that if an organization insists on an approval chain, to at least double (if not triple) the time it takes to complete a project. The longer the approval chain, the more time it will take to complete a project – since each step in that chain requires not just waiting for the approval (and a possible multi-hour meeting), but also time to make the edits and go through another meeting with that approver.
Life, task switching, distractions, design / research time. Most people tend to estimate how much time it takes to actually do the task if life is beautiful, they are disciplined, un-interrupted, and they know EXACTLY how they are going to approach the task.
“I should be able to knock this out in a couple of hours….”
2 weeks later…..
This is where knowing the history of similar projects – both within and outside of an organization helps.
You get more accurate (and objective) time estimates.
The only downside is that those estimates tend to be longer than any executive wants to hear.
At least it is a good way to start surfacing further risks. Ask more questions.
What caused those projects to fail?
What caused those projects, if they succeeded, to take 5-7 times longer to complete than initial estimates?
Is there a way we can mitigate those risks?
Original article from McKinsey.com – Daniel Kahneman Beware the Inside View.
Source book – Thinking, Fast and Slow The whole book is a great read.
I’ve talked about this before: