Think Slow, Act Fast: The record of big projects is even worse than it seems.
To understand the right way to get a project done quickly, it’s useful to think of a project as being divided into two phases. This is a simplification, but it works: first, planning; second, delivery. The terminology varies by industry—in movies, it’s “development and production”; in architecture, “design and construction”—but the basic idea is the same everywhere: Think first, then do.
Planning is a safe harbor. Delivery is venturing across the storm-tossed seas. This is a major reason why, at Pixar—the legendary studio that created Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Soul, and so many other era-defining animated movies—“directors are allowed to spend years in the development phase of a movie,” noted Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar. There is a cost associated with exploring ideas, writing scripts, storyboarding images, and doing it all over and over again. But “the costs of iterations are relatively low.”
Not only is it safer for planning to be slow, it is good for planning to be slow, as the directors at Pixar well know. After all, cultivating ideas and innovations takes time. Spotting the implications of different options and approaches takes more time. Puzzling through complex problems, coming up with solutions, and putting them to the test take still more time. Planning requires thinking—and creative, critical, careful thinking is slow.
Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said that if he had five minutes to chop down a tree, he’d spend the first three sharpening the axe. That’s exactly the right approach for big projects: Put enormous care and effort into planning to ensure that delivery is smooth and swift.
The Commitment Fallacy: You need to commit, but not in the way you think.
We are a deeply optimistic species. That makes us an overconfident species. The large majority of car drivers say that their driving skills are above average. Most small-business owners are confident that their new business will succeed even though most small businesses fail. Smokers believe that they are at less risk of lung cancer than other smokers. There are countless more illustrations like these in the psychological literature.
The sheer pervasiveness of optimism and overconfidence suggests that they are useful for us, individually and collectively, and there’s plenty of research and experience to support that conclusion. We definitely need optimism and a can-do attitude to inspire big projects and see them through. Or to get married and have kids. Or to get up in the morning. But if while boarding a plane you overhear the pilot say, “I’m optimistic about the fuel situation,” get off immediately, because this is neither the time nor the place for optimism.
key heuristic for managing optimism on projects is “You want the flight attendant, not the pilot, to be an optimist.” What you need from your pilot, and must insist on, is hard-nosed analysis that sees reality as clearly as possible. The same holds for optimism about budgets and schedules on big projects, which are their “fuel readings.” Unchecked, optimism leads to unrealistic forecasts, poorly defined goals, better options ignored, problems not spotted and dealt with, and no contingencies to counteract the inevitable surprises.
Don’t assume you know all there is to know. If you’re a project leader and people on your team make this assumption—which is common—educate them or shift them out of the team. Don’t let yourself or them draw what appear to be obvious conclusions. That sort of premature commitment puts you at risk of missing not only glaring flaws but also opportunities that could make your project much better than what you have in mind now.
Think from Right to Left: Start with the most basic question of all: Why?
Developing a clear, informed understanding of what the goal is and why—and never losing sight of it from beginning to end—is the foundation of a successful project.
In project planning, a standard tool is a flowchart that lays out, from left to right, what needs to be done and when, with the project concluding when the goal is achieved in the final box on the right. That simple concept is also valuable in the initial planning stages because it can help us visualize a project not as an end in itself but as a means to an end: The goal is the box on the right. That’s where project planning must begin by thoughtfully exploring what should go in that box. Once that is settled, you can shift to considering what should go into the boxes on the left—the means that will best get you to your goal.
The most common way in which thinking from right to left fails is losing sight of the right, the goal. Even Steve Jobs committed this error after insisting on the opposite: that projects have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. The most notorious example was Apple’s Power Mac G4 Cube computer. Released in 2000, the G4 was a translucent cube that even today looks gorgeously futuristic. It had no power switch. You just waved your hand, and it turned on. So cool. So Steve Jobs. And that was the problem. The G4 had not been designed by looking at who Apple’s customers were and what would serve them best. Its combination of cost, capabilities, and aesthetics was molded by Steve Jobs’s passions, and impressive as the machine was, it was an awkward fit for customers. The G4 flopped, and Apple scrapped it a year later at great cost.
But “work backwards” also fails when planners aren’t compelled to nail down what’s in that final flowchart box on the right and forced to think from right to left. Without that, it’s easy to get consumed by the blizzard of details and difficulties that arise during the planning of any project, while the goal, which was only vaguely understood to begin with, fades from view. Then the project can veer off in unpredictable directions.
Are You Experienced?: Experience is often misunderstood and marginalized.
How does experience make people better at their jobs? Ask someone that question, and you’ll likely hear that with experience people know more. That’s true as far as it goes. People who work with a tool learn how to use it, so they gain knowledge such as “The safety lock must be turned off before the tool can start.”
You don’t actually need experience to get that sort of knowledge. Someone can just tell you, or you can find it in a manual; it is “explicit knowledge.” But as the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi showed, much of the most valuable knowledge we can possess and use isn’t like that; it is “tacit knowledge.” We feel tacit knowledge. And when we try to put it into words, the words never fully capture it. As Polanyi wrote, “We can know more than we can tell.” When planning, remember the Latin word experiri, the origin of the English words experiment and experience. Whenever possible, planning should maximize experience.
When something works, keep it. When it doesn’t, get rid of it. Try, learn, again. And again. And again. Let the plan evolve. Testing is all the more critical for those very rare big projects—such as finding solutions to the climate crisis, getting people to Mars, or permanently storing nuclear waste—that must do what has never been done before because that is the heart of the project. They start with a deep deficit of experience. To deliver their vision, on time and budget, that deficit must be turned into a surplus with the relentless application of experiri.
A good plan is one that maximizes experience or experimentation; a great plan is one that does both. And the best plan? That’s one that maximizes experience and experimentation—and is drafted and delivered by a project leader and team with phronesis
Eleven Heuristics for Better Project Leadership
Heuristics are mental shortcuts used to reduce complexity, making decisions manageable. Heuristics are often tacit and need to be deliberately teased out before they can be shared verbally. Wise people, including successful project leaders—plus your grandmother and anyone else with phronesis—work to refine and improve their heuristics throughout life.
The following are eleven of the author’s favorite heuristics, developed during decades of studying and managing big projects. But a word of warning: Heuristics should never be used like thoughtless paint-by-numbers rules. Check whether they resonate with your own experience before using them in practice.
HIRE A MASTERBUILDER
You want someone with deep domain experience and a proven track record of success in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a home renovation, a wedding, an IT system, or a skyscraper. But masterbuilders aren’t always available or affordable, in which case you need to think further and consider some of the following.
GET YOUR TEAM RIGHT
Ed Catmull explained why: “Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are they will get the ideas right.”
Asking why you’re doing your project will focus you on what matters, your ultimate purpose, and your result. This goes into the box on the right of your project chart.
BUILD WITH LEGO
Big is best built from small. Bake one small cake. Bake another. And another. Then stack them. Decoration aside, that’s all there really is to even the most towering wedding cake.
THINK SLOW, ACT FAST
What’s the worst that can happen during planning? Maybe your whiteboard is accidentally erased. What’s the worst that can happen during delivery? Your drill breaks through the ocean floor, flooding the tunnel. Just before you release your movie, a pandemic closes theaters.
TAKE THE OUTSIDE VIEW
Your project is special, but unless you are doing what has literally never been done before—building a time machine, engineering a black hole—it is not unique; it is part of a larger class of projects. Think of your project as “one of those,” gather data, and learn from all the experience those numbers represent by making reference-class forecasts.
WATCH YOUR DOWNSIDE
It’s often said that opportunity is as important as risk. That’s false. Risk can kill you or your project. No upside can compensate for that.
SAY NO AND WALK AWAY
Staying focused is essential for getting projects done. Saying no is essential for staying focused. At the outset, will the project have the people and funds, including contingencies, needed to succeed? If not, walk away.
MAKE FRIENDS AND KEEP THEM FRIENDLY
A leader of a multibillion-dollar public sector IT project told the author that he spent more than half his time acting like a diplomat, cultivating the understanding and support of stakeholders who could significantly influence his project. Why? It’s risk management. If something goes wrong, the project’s fate depends on the strength of those relationships. And when something goes wrong, it’s too late to start developing and cultivating them. Build your bridges before you need them.
BUILD CLIMATE MITIGATION INTO YOUR PROJECT
No task is more urgent today than mitigating the climate crisis—not only for the common good but for your organization, yourself, and your family. Aristotle defined phronesis as the dual ability to see what things are good for people and to get those things done
KNOW THAT YOUR BIGGEST RISK IS YOU
It’s tempting to think that projects fail because the world throws surprises at us: price and scope changes, accidents, weather, new management—the list goes on. But this is shallow thinking. The Great Chicago Fire Festival failed not because Jim Lasko couldn’t predict the exact chain of circumstances that led to the malfunction of the ignition system.
It failed because he took the inside view on his project and didn’t study how failure typically occurs for live events as a class. Why didn’t he? Because focusing on the particular case and ignoring the class is what human psychology inclines us to do. The greatest threat Lasko faced wasn’t out in the world; it was in his own head, in his behavioral biases. This is true for every one of us and every project. Which is why your biggest risk is you.