The Cost of Optimism and The Sorry State of Project Management

The Cost of Optimism and The Sorry State of Project Management

The Cost of Optimism and The Sorry State of Project Management
 The Cost of Optimism and The Sorry State of Project Management

The Obamacare website is the latest in a long line of major IT project disasters. 
In 2005, The Economist ran a wonderful piece on the sorry state of project management. The first project profiled, a railway line from Liverpool to Manchester came in 45% over budget.The Standish Group, which analyzes IT projects, reported that only 29% of IT projects succeeded, down from 34% at the turn of the century. Cost over-runs from original budgets averaged 56%, and projects on average took 84% more time than originally anticipated.
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Put another way, 71% of projects did not succeed, budgets averaged 156% of budget, and projects took 184% as long as promised . Wow. Again, 71% of projects did not succeed.Another study examined 210 rail and road projects and found that traffic estimates used to justify the projects (i.e. passenger or car traffic) were overly aggressive by an average of 106%.
Today's papers are rife with horror stories of projects failing - from, the FBI's abandoned $170m internal IT project, to incredible cost overruns and delays in the Pentagon's weapons development programs.  What does all this mean for venture capital and for executive teams?
Venture capitalists fund companies to value creating milestones. The theory is that if objective value milestones are met, the company and insiders will be able to raise a new round of funding at a stepped-up valuation. All too often, however, the cost, time, and effort associated with such milestones is underestimated. Instead of hitting plan, the company runs out of money a quarter or two prior to realizing its objectives. The insiders and management are then faced with the dreaded prospect of a down round or a bridge financing to tide the company through to meeting its original plan.
Why do such smart people, across so many industries, fail to adequately account for two crucial variables in planning - cost and time?  Max Bazerman, an HBS professor and former professor of mine at Kellogg, blames "self-serving bias," overly optimistic projects that help win the business and advance careers and agendas.  Think about the LBO business. Most deals are auctions, and the winning bid is often simply the highest bid. In some sense, the only way to win is to forecast the rosiest outlook and forecasts. 
Along those lines, I once sat through a McKinsey pitch on private equity firm performance in which McKinsey found that the winning bidder/firm overestimated the target company's first year EBITDA 66% of the time. By overestimating profit performance, the winner bidder justified a very aggressive bid.  This is not good for investors, nor for companies who set overly aggressive goal, fail to realize them, and then have to retrench, rationalize, and regroup.  Project management gurus think of five key stages of project management: initiation, planning, execution, control, and closure.

If we think of start-ups as projects (a popular VC description of young companies) and if start-ups suffer the statistics of the IT industry at large, then 71% will go under, 84% will take longer than anyone thought, and 44% will run out of money before they get to value creating events.  Another cliche in venture is that execution separates great start-ups from losers. These numbers illustrate why that is the case. If you are great at the initiation phase - idea articulation and business plan creation - and suffer the ability to execute and control the project...then not good.

These numbers suggest that VC firms that help their portfolio companies optimize execution - operating plan development, sales forecasting and management, engineering project planning, marketing plans, etc - will add tremendous value.  Helping young companies develop the best practices associated not just with coming up with great ideas or products, but also on executing on a budgeted plan that ensures the company comes in on time and on budget with the deliverables in hand will be of immense value.
Start-ups should look for VCs who add value in this very concrete manner. Ask VCs how they provide the tools, systems, and practices that contribute to project success and avoid the long history of project disasters. Saving value-added tools that improve the odds of success, entrepreneurs should seek to work with VCs who will stand by companies who bear the cost of optimism and are able to raise capital as "tweeners."

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The Author: Will Price
                                  Will Price
Founder and GP at Next Frontier Capital 
My mission is to live a balanced, community centric life close to nature and family, while collaborating with talented, authentic people to create organizations of utility, impact and meaning.  Specialties: Management, Technology, Venture Capital, Angel Investing, Coaching, EPL, Outdoor Adventure.

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