“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.” Have you ever said this to a friend or spouse over the phone while rushing to put your shoes on? Or how about a statement like this, “We are aiming to launch the project at the beginning of Q2?” We have all been guilty of being overly optimistic when predicting how long a task or project will take, and this phenomenon is actually so prevalent that it’s been given a name: the planning fallacy (you know it’s terrible when it’s been given a name).
In 1977, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky observed that we tend to regularly underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete an action because we cognitively project overly optimistic performance scenarios. Since Kahneman and Tversky published their seminal study, there have been many empirical studies confirming the planning fallacy’s existence. For instance, a study conducted with psychology students found that only 30% of them managed to complete their senior thesis in the amount of time they predicted.
What’s more, the planning fallacy is incredibly persistent. Research suggests that we don’t learn from our previous mistakes. While we can recognize past predictions where we have been overly optimistic, we often insist that our current projections are realistic.
What can we do as leaders to help ourselves and others on our team catch this planning conundrum? Here are 4 strategies that we can use to save time, money, and resources by avoiding the planning fallacy.
Take the Outside View
Kahneman eventually wrote a book called, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and in it, he suggests that we should not base our estimates on our own frame of reference. Consult with experts and others who have attempted comparable projects in the past. If you’re a manager, email someone at another company; if you’re a student, talk to senior students. Get their insight by asking them questions before you start projecting your timeline.
Define Your Priorities
It’s natural to get excited about a new project and add a thousand tasks to your to-do list. But projects are rarely done in a vacuum. Our new projects have to compete with the litany of other things we have to do. On the front end, clarify what your working priorities will be.
Question Your Motives
Are you intending on finishing a project by a specific date because you want to— or maybe because it would be the most convenient scenario—or because you are “objectively” convinced it can be done by then? What is driving your timelines? Are there subjective reasons such as organizational politics, a personal deadline like holiday trip, or outside pressure that may lead to unrealistic deadlines?
Conduct a Pre-Mortem
A pre-mortem is an activity where we assume that a project has failed and work backward to determine what could have led to the failure. Imagine that the project was late: what would have caused the delay?
Time for Reflection: What current projects or strategic initiatives are in jeopardy of falling victim to the planning fallacy? What will you do to change that trajectory?