PM Articles > Geof Lory > Leading with your Weakness

Leading with your Weakness

by Geof Lory

When I started writing this article, the Super Bowl was only days away. The airwaves were filled with tons of prognostications, with neither team being the clear favorite. Picking the winner was a coin toss, but then such is the nature of predicting the future. We love to try it, but the reality is that even the supposed experts aren't all that accurate, and the rest of us would probably fare no worse if we just flipped a coin and placed our bet.

For many companies, this is also the start of a new budget year. To me, the budgeting process looks a lot like placing a sports bet: extensive analysis and planning by those not directly participating, little knowledge of the actual game plan, even less about the condition of the individual team members, and we can only predict the environment in which the game will be played. Yet we predict, promise, and plan at levels of precision that belie the reliability of the information we have. Would that we were as smart as we think we are.

The problem with budgetary planning is not the planning, but rather our perception and use of the plan. We actually believe we know what we are talking about. As a person who has created more plans for budgets than I care to admit, I can honestly say I never really believed any of them. They exist merely to appease some corporate process or management need for funding. To me, it is a shell game with less chance of coming out ahead than placing a random bet on the Super Bowl.

The Plan is an Illusion

I don't mean to bash planning for budgets, because I actually like to plan. I just don't place that much stock in the plan itself. Plans are typically based on illusion, and as such are little more than smoke and mirrors. The probability of plan accuracy is a product of the following factors:

    1. A common understanding of the definition of done (the "what")
    2. A complete understanding of the work to be executed to achieve done (the "how")
    3. Estimates of the effort required to complete each piece of work (the "how much")
    4. An understanding of the risks associated with completing each piece of work (the "unknowns")

    The What

    For most projects the "what" is either defined at such a high and ambiguous level that it is unactionable, or it changes with such regularity that within a short period of time the team and the stakeholders have widely different views of what done looks like. Maintaining a clear and common understanding of the "what" is essential, but rarely well executed. So the first factor in our calculation is a fuzzy number at best. Without statistical data, let's be generous and say it is 50% accurate at any given time.

    The How

    The "how" is where we like to believe we add our valuable experience and expertise, but the reality is that unless you have done this exact type of project before the "how" will be discovered as you move through the project toward the ill-defined "what." Again, a confidence factor of 50% that you will have the all the right steps and know exactly how to do something you have never done would be giving you a sizable benefit of the doubt.

    The How Much

    The "how much" is an aggregated estimating exercise that assumes a known or consistent application of resources committed at a reliable level with nominal impediments and distractions. That's a quite mouthful -- and an unrealistic one at that. In spite of demand plans that estimate to the hour or tenth of a resource over a period of quarters (yes, some organizations actually do this and think it adds value) the chance that reality will mesh with that plan is far less than 50%. But, let's be kind and leave it at 50%.

    The Unknown

    The "unknown" is exactly that: unknown. The more your project involves new technology, new or changing processes, and evolving requirements, the more unknowns you will face. Then there are those pesky people unknowns: personnel problems. By definition, the future is unknown. Any plan projects into the future and therefore will include unknowns. Some can be handled through effective risk management (which is rarely planned or budgeted for) but others can't be specifically anticipated. You can't know what you don't know, otherwise you would know. (I bet Yogi Berra said that once.) To be safe in most projects, a 50% risk factor is probably realistic.

You don't have to be a mathematician to see the compounding inaccuracy of this approach. If you multiply the numbers above for each plan premise, (A × B × C × D) you end up with a plan that is 6.25% accurate. I kept the decimal points to give the impression that my assessment is accurate, when admittedly it is a total guess, like most plans. Flipping a coin starts to look like an equally viable strategy.

The Crystal Ball

The reason creating an accurate plan is so challenging is that all of the building block activities require looking into the future, which by definition is uncertain. This is a skill we are exceptionally poor at and should leave to the soothsayers. Instead, we not only pretend to be good at guessing the future, we introduce a measure of self-delusion that totally overshadows our admission that we are taking a complete stab in the dark. As if this wasn't enough, we then build our measurement systems around this misconception. The Earned Value Management System is systematized example of our delusion: uncertainty predicated on the indefinable in an uncontrollable world. Take that to the bank.

I classify this entire exercise as leading with your weakness. As I listened to numerous sports announcers this past week talk about each of the teams in the Super Bowl, none of them could guarantee the outcome or winner. But one thing I could guarantee was that neither team would lead with their weakness. They are not that delusional. Imagine a coach being interviewed about his game plan and saying, "Our running game is the weakest part of our game. We don't know how to do it well, we haven't had the best success with it this season, and our best runner is out with a bad knee. But this Sunday, our game plan will be to run the ball." I don't think so.

The annual planning and budgeting process is leading with your weakness. This is particularly wasteful because I know they know (and in their hearts, they know that they know) that the minute after the plan is created it will either be ignored or made irrelevant by the newest shiny object. Still, the charade continues, hours are wasted, and little is actually accomplished. Everyone wants a plan -- and a precise one at that -- because funds will be allocated accordingly. It may give everyone a sense of security, but when you don't know, you don't know. Pretending to know doesn't make you any smarter.

I try to keep in mind that the purpose of planning is not to produce a plan, but rather to create mutual awareness and alignment at a level sufficient to act in the face of the uncertain future while accepting a tolerable level of risk. What is really needed is clarity rather than unachievable certainty, and more importantly, progress rather than prediction. Spending more time planning won't get you a better plan; it will just waste precious time.

But before you throw away your Microsoft Project software (because you will still need a pretty Gantt chart to get your funding), try this approach. Think "fixed bid." Establish a comfortable level of alignment on what done looks like, document all of your assumptions, keep your resource plans simple (don't complicate things by assigning fractions of a person), and go. Any more planning than that is wasted time, as the plan will be elaborated and your ignorance cured in the process of execution.

Developing a fixed-bid mindset forces the mental gymnastics that get you beyond guessing. It sets boundaries and expectations around the scope, budget, and schedule. But more importantly, it creates schedule urgency and budgetary awareness, because the methods to articulate and measure time and cost are unambiguous: dates and dollars. That leaves only scope to be continuously negotiated; using whatever methodology you choose and rigor you apply. At a high level, this is taking a page out of the agile playbook: fix schedule and cost, and flex scope.

As the story goes, the Oracle at Delphi once claimed that, of all men living, Socrates was the most wise, because by his own admission he did not think he knew what he did not know. But then again, Socrates probably never had a manager who asked him for a project plan in order to get his budget approved. He wasn't just wise, he was fortunate too.

Related Links
A comfortable alignment around project goals begins with a solid vision statement and completion criteria that describe what "done" looks like. Previous articles have discussed how to go about documenting and discussing assumptions. Simple resource planning doesn't require a template, though it never hurts to ensure that all team members are crystal clear about their responsibilities and how they affect others' work.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Great take on the uncertainty of project budgeting and estimating. Even when our agency does a deep dive into planning, I always have this sense that on some level our planning docs are as accurate in divining the future as someone picking through tea leaves.

As you noted, keeping scope flexible seems to be the key to keeping the project stakeholders honest. We've begun to introduce flex scope practices into our engagement docs so clients at least admit at the outset of a project that there is inherent risk in every project. Without those SOW or MSA caveats, clients tend to ignore planning docs or rationalize changes at the expense of the agency. It's imperfect, but the inevitable conversations about resourcing, timelines and budgets seem less painful when principles for project management are understood up front.

Great that you are having the conversation up front. It's all about the dialogue, isn't it?.

These are great observations Geof! Especially useful in government planning and budgeting. I've always found that frequent dialogue, early and often, is the key and your article affirms that. Reminds me of a quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Aligns well with what you say: "I try to keep in mind that the purpose of planning is not to produce a plan, but rather to create mutual awareness and alignment at a level sufficient to act in the face of the uncertain future while accepting a tolerable level of risk" You and General Eisenhower - great minds think alike...

Just getting to your comments now. Doesn't surprise me you are a fan of The General. BTW - He was an avid golfer, and probably planned and prepared for golf with the same mindset.

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