Article - Top 10 Ways Human Psychology Screws Up Our Projects


Way #1 - We Force Ourselves to Make Estimation Ranges Narrower

Ask anyone to estimate something. Anything, really. For example, ask them what is the distance between New York and Paris (5,839 km or 3,628 miles), and request that they provide you with a range that they are 90% confident in. Rather than saying, “Well, If you need a 90% confidence, then I would go with something like 5,000 km and 15,000 km”, they will provide you instead with very narrow ranges (say, 6,000 – 6,500 km) that are very close to the actual number but yet miss the target.  As a result, “90% confident” usually translates to “20-40% confident”.

Way #2 - We Suffer from the Optimism Bias

Humans constantly underestimate the complexity of the tasks assigned to them and chronically overestimate their ability to accomplish the said tasks (read more about this topic here and here).

Way #3 - We Fail to See the Connection Between Estimates and Probabilities

We have a very hard time understanding that as soon as someone asked us to estimate the duration of the project, we – whether we like it or not – have entered the realm of probabilities. Some of the questions that will affect the answer to the request above are:

  • Will the customer want Feature X?
  • Will the customer want the “Honda Civic” or “Ferrari” version of Feature X?
  • If you implement the “Honda Civic” version of Feature X, will the customer later change his mind and demand the “Ferrari” version after all?
  • How will Feature X be designed?
  • How long will it take to debug and correct mistakes made in implementing Feature X?

Way #4 - We Tend to Think of Projects as One-Dimensional Entities

We tend to focus on just one dimension of the project. Usually it is either the time or money, e.g. “can you finish by next Friday?” or “my budget is capped at $10,000”.

What we neglect to see that every project has (at least) five dimensions:

  • Scope (i.e. how many features do you want included?)
  • Quality (i.e. for each feature above, do you want a “Honda Civic” or a “Ferrari” version of the product?)
  • Time (i.e. how flexible are you with time?)
  • Budget (i.e. how flexible are you with budget?)
  • Resources (i.e. can you provide me with your own human resources?)

Way #5 - We Think That Cost of Mistake Is the Same Throughout the Duration of the Project

In reality it is not. A mistake that would cost you $1 to fix at the beginning of the project usually ends up costing anywhere between $40 and $1,000 at the end of your journey. By the way, same applies to person-hours expended to fix the errors.

Way #6 - We Tend to Ignore Unconscious Requirements

When talking to the users or clients, we (or to be precise, rather they) tend to focus on the conscious requirements. Conscious requirements are the ones that are uppermost in the stakeholders’ minds and they are often symptomatic of something that the stakeholders want to improve. For example, an office supplies manufacturer who wants to sell his products online will almost definitely mention features like “Product Page”, “Product Catalog” and “Search for Product” features when talking to the eCommerce specialist. However, it is very likely that he will forget to mention things like state or provincial taxes that need to be applied to the totals depending on the shipping address.

Way #7 - We Tend to Use Ambiguous Language

Words like “fast”, “pretty”, “big”, “small”, “cutting-edge”, “user friendly” are completely acceptable in “normal” conversations. However in the world of project management each one of these characteristics – if left unchecked – can spell a disaster for the entire project (read more about this here).

Way #8 - We Like to Focus on a “Happy Path”

Ask your friend to describe something as simple as withdrawing money from the ATM. I guarantee you, he will describe the steps in the following manner:

  • Insert card
  • Enter PIN
  • Select account
  • Enter amount
  • Withdraw money

Unless he is a trained project management professional, he will never bother mentioning alternatives and exceptions like “ATM can’t read the card”, “PIN is incorrect”, “account has insufficient funds” or ‘ATM is out of money”.

Way #9 - We Don’t Notice Scope Creep Until It Is Too Late

There is a concept in physics known as “Quasistatic Process’. In layman’s terms it can be described as a movement so slow that it can’t be observed by a human eye. The best example of the quasistatic process is the movement of the small hand on any clock.

Same concept applies to the scope creep. Each addition or “improvement” to the project scope seem small and insignificant, but after time they pile up to such degree that they can’t be “contained” by the original budget and timeline.

Way #10 - We Ignore the Hidden Cost of Change Request

Ask even the experienced project manager about the impact of the change request and she will mention things like potential updates to the blueprints, bills of materials, technical drawings, design documents, technical work to be done by engineers, construction crew, developers, architects, etc.

Unfortunately, 90% of project managers will ignore the cost of assessing the change request itself, irrelevant of the fact whether it was approved or not!


Do you have any examples of your own where psychology negatively affects our project management abilities?

About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @

Jamal is an author of three very popular books: 

  1. Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management 
  2. Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects
  3. Project Portfolio Management in Theory and Practice: Thirty Case Studies from around the World