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Problems with over-promising

There are two unfortunate and unmissable rules related to projects – they cost more than you thought and they take longer than you thought. These two rules also apply to frameworks. Why is this?


Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a couple of psychologists that we know well from their work on behavioural economics, said that this over optimism is "planning fallacy". We fall into the trap of thinking we can do things quicker and within budget because we imagine in our heads how the project will unfold. Life is never like that. In large and complex projects it is unlikely that everything will work smoothly and to schedule.


Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist writes in the Financial Times about an experiment conducted by psychologist Roger Buehler in the early 1990s. A group of undergraduates were asked to predict how long it would take to submit their honours thesis. They guessed an average of 34 days when the reality was 56 days. Even when predicting how long it would take to write an essay or clean an apartment, Buehler's students thought they could perform these tasks in half the time it actually took.


It seems that we are always getting it wrong and appear not to learn from our past optimistic views. We focus on the future task and we do not use our experiences of all those little things that we know can go wrong. The deadline is too distant to worry about.


Boris Johnson, whose instinct is eternal optimism, has learned to be cautious about promising world beating apps and dates that are unrealistic. He is more cautious about when and how lockdown restrictions will be eased. It is one thing to set targets in private and for yourself, it is another to set them in the public arena. Underselling and over proving may not appeal to the tub thumpers but it is the safer path and is likely to win the most respect in the longer term.


Rather than just throw our hands up and say “we have to live with wishful thinking”, we should break tasks into their component parts, each with their own objectives and plan. In this way we are more likely to be realistic with our timescales and cost. It can be done. The Empire State building was built to plan in just over one year and Boris Johnson reached the 15 million vaccine jabs he promised by February 15, to plan, and just six weeks after he announced the audacious goal. At the time of writing (1st March) that figure has hit 20 million - a remarkable achievement given that so much could have gone wrong.