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Cost of Project Success
By Thomas Cutting

Great things can be accomplished if Scope, Budget and Duration are no object. Here are some historical examples:

Hoover Dam

  • Scope: Stop a river and produce 2080 megawatts of power.
  • Budget: $49M US cost (under budget)
  • Duration: < 5 years (2 years ahead of schedule)
  • Added Expense: 112 Deaths

Egyptian Pyramid

  • Scope: Started as a grave. Scope creep resulted in one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with quite a bit of gold plating, literally.
  • Budget: Spare not Cost
  • Duration: 27 years each
  • Added Expense: Slave Labor

Great Wall of China

  • Scope: Stop the Xiongnu attacks with a really big wall (6400km / 4000miles long)
  • Budget: Unknown
  • Duration: Several Centuries
  • Added Expense: 2 to 3 million Chinese lives

Each of these was an amazing project and each came with a high price tag in human lives.

Unfortunately there are a fair number of companies that force their teams to nearly kill themselves for unrealistic timelines. A friend of mine told me of the unhealthy environment they had recently left. The pressure there was tremendous. Deadlines were strictly enforced, resulting in projects that came in on time. How? People were required to work as much as 80 hours a week and be on call when they weren’t physically there. This resulted in people quitting, massive amounts of sick time request, spouses threatening divorce and people being hauled off in ambulances.

What made this story ironic was the fact that the company was in the health care industry.

How can you avoid killing your team?

Involve them in the estimating process. It seems obvious, but the people that do a deed generally know what it takes to get it done. Your job is to question the numbers. First, make sure there are enough hours. Are their estimates only for development? Did they include requirements, design and testing? Next, get a second opinion. One method for this is Planning Poker (see entry on Agile Estimating Methods). Finally, work to eliminate padding. Create a contingency pool to apply where needed but estimate the pieces realistically.

Limit overtime. Your initial pass at the schedule should not include overtime. Then, if overtime can’t be avoided, set boundaries on the timeframe. People can survive a lot if there is an end in sight. Strive to keep the overtime sprints to 6 weeks in duration. Show the team the time line and ask for their commitment.

Compensate them. Even “exempt” employees (salaried / non-time and materials) can’t be expected to work tirelessly without receiving something. The promise of several days off following a sprint can keep the team pushing forward. This isn’t expected to be an hour per hour trade for the time they put in. After all, salaried employees are expected to put a bit more into their jobs when necessary.

Set realistic expectations. As the project manager it is your responsibility to set the expectations of upper management.

Schedule team outings. Get your team out of the office once in a while. Lunch can be a simple solution. On the flip side, a friend of mine is attempting to set up a cricket match here in the states.

Give family friendly rewards. Stressful environments wreak havoc on families. Token rewards such as movie tickets or gift cards can help ease some of that pressure. Acknowledgement of that fact can go a long way. Consider presenting awards directly to spouses to show you understand the strain they are under.

Watch for warning signs. Keep on eye out for people that are putting in too many hours. Encourage them to throttle down a little, especially if they are wearing the same cloths they had on yesterday.

Very few projects are worth killing your team over. Besides, the paperwork involved in having an ambulance on site is a real pain.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge ( and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (

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