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Late and Over Budget Projects: No Simple Answers to Complex Questions

Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Some simple answers may be true, but most are not. Human systems and relationships are complex. When problems, issues, or questions arise, don’t be satisfied with simplistic answers that assume that there is a single cause that if eliminated will resolve the problem or answer the question.

That is not to say that there are no simple solutions. There are but applying them is not easy. They require adapting the solution to the situation at hand and overcoming obstacles to its application.



For Example, on a personal level, the answer to “How can we live a life of wellness?” is simple, accept things as they are, do what you can do, and let go of the things that get in the way. The same simple answer applies to the problem of chronically late and overbudget projects.

But, accepting and letting go into a solution is not so easy. Accept and let go is often the last thing we want to hear when we are trying to resolve the issue of late and overbudget projects.


We need to answer the question, “How do we break the misunderstandings, cultural conditions, and habits that keep us from accepting and letting go?” The answer depends on the nature of the people involved and the environment. You must get down to the specific causes of the problem, assess them,  decide what to do, and do it.

When you do take action be realistic. Do not expect miracles (they might happen but let them be a surprise rather than an expectation). The more complex the situation the greater the probability of having to refine the action over time until an optimal solution is found.


Predictability – Complex vs complicated

Before moving on let’s be clear about what a complex situation is. The situation is the system, state of affairs, or circumstances within which the issue occurs. When the system consists of many interrelated parts and the parts act independently from one another the system becomes emergent – we don’t know how things will turn out until they turn out. In other words, complex systems are not predictable. Systems in which humans interact with one another in a changing environment are complex.

Complicated systems, on the other hand, also have many parts but their relationships to one another are clearly defined and coordinated. For example, a jet liner is a complicated system. Removing unnecessary elements, you can know what will happen when the pilot flies the plane. Complicated systems are predictable.

Systems can be understood by breaking the system down into their parts. This “decomposition” makes the number and type of intersecting elements – people, expectations, departments, technology, processes, rules, interactions, objectives, predictability, cultural norms, etc. As this is done the degree of predictability of the system becomes obvious.


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Late and overbudget projects occur in a system made up of several departments within client and provider organizations. Multiple projects are occurring simultaneously. Departments may have conflicting objectives. There may be insufficient coordination – for example an ineffective portfolio management process. Expectations may be unrealistic. Communication skills and emotional intelligence may be primitive. Hierarchical relationships may get in the way of effective communication, decision making, and planning.

In a complex system, aside from the probability of unpredictability, it is not possible to accurately predict the outcome of a simple solution like the implementation of a new and wonderful project and portfolio management tool set and simplistic training in scheduling and budgeting. Without going further into the causes, we can predict that the solution will not solve the problem – projects will continue to be late and overbudget.


Why do we seek simple?

If we can predict that simple solutions to complex problems will fail, why then apply simple solutions?

One reason we do it is because we want certainty. Simple solutions often come with the promise of a quick and definitive fix at low cost. Often, we do not want to or can’t spend the time and effort to understand complexities and determine root causes. Even when we do spend the time and effort, we might find that the causes are too embarrassing to bring to the surface, or we might think they are not actionable. For example, the cause of the problem of late and over budget projects might be a combination of sales efforts that set expectations that cannot be met, poor estimating and scheduling, senior management or clients who won’t listen to reason.


It reminds me of a story:

A man, Nasruddin, is crawling around under the streetlamp in front of his house. His neighbor comes over to help. The man is searching for his dropped key. After combing the area under the light, the neighbor asks, “Are you sure you dropped it here?” Nasruddin says, “Oh, I dropped it over there by the door. But it’s dark over there, we’d never find it there.”

So, someone comes up with the idea that a new project management tool and some scheduling and estimating training for the project managers will solve the problem. That makes everyone, except, maybe, the Project Managers, happy. The salespeople are off the hook. Senior management can keep on doing what they are doing, and they are happy that they won’t have to deal with the complexities of making meaningful change.


The Bottomline

The simple solution is to accept the situation as it is – look at it objectively, accepting all its flaws, and with a realistic understanding of it, and then figure out what to do to eliminate the obstacles to resolving the problem. With obstacles, like fear of making meaningful change by confronting powerful stakeholders, out of the way, a workable, yet probably imperfect, solution can be found. When the solution includes ongoing assessment and refinement, it is as perfect as it can be.

The challenge is to courageously speak truth to authority, to accept the way things are, and let go into an ongoing performance improvement process to get them to where you want them to be.


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.