Projects and Problems

Published: 04/13/2011 03:46 p.m.

A project can be loosely defined as a set of activities that are planned to achieve an outcome. An example of a project could be building a website, planting a garden, or simply grocery shopping.

A problem can be defined as an obstacle or challenge the prevents an outcome from being accomplished. Examples of problems are running out of money, breaking a fingernail, and not having clean drinking water. Problems are often paired with solutions, which remove the obstacle of challenge. The better defined problem may increase the chance of finding a successful solution.

Let's take a look at a simple trip to the grocery store (project) and how problems and solutions come about.

Planning Phase

We begin by planning our trip. First, we take some account of our shopping needs. Do we have milk? Will we want steak this week? Are we eating out at all during the week? Already you may notice that our shopping trip (a project) is in fact a solution to our problem of needing to eat. We begin to see how intertwined projects and problems are.

We also need to consider a budget at this point. Can we eat Filets and drink fancy wine all week? Probably not, so we will set up a budget and then add or cut items from our list to meet this budget. Again, the problem is we have limited money, and our solution is to cut items from our list, which changes the scope and outcome of our project.

We decide upon a list of 20 items that will serve for 4 meals for the coming week, along with a few side items (beer) and staples for our panty. We have budgeted according to our best known prices for these items, however it is possible that our estimated prices could be inaccurate, so we have made sure to not run our project's budget right up against our real cash supply. We could do a more detailed analysis by calling grocers and polling their prices, but we aren't going to do that. We are also estimating that the grocery store will have all the items that we intend to buy, which is more of an assumption-based estimation than our pricing.

Despite not actually accomplishing our task yet, we have devoted a bit of time and energy into the project. We could have planned much less and headed straight for the store, but that would probably not result in a very good shopping trip. We could have planned even more, but that might have been time wasted since our plans may need some adjustment while "in the field."

While we did not budget a time for this project, we have again made the assumptive estimation that a trip like this should only take 20-30 minutes. If we greatly exceed this, we may need to pause the project and check the situation. We also spent time planning, but did not budget that time either.

Now it's time to shop.

Execution Phase

We arrive at the store and grab our cart. We head for the first aisle and begin searching for items on our list. We did not plan strategically to lower travel time within the store, so we will just go up and down every aisle. Our first items are found and are relatively close to the budgeted amount. This is good, and our project is on track. But then we meet our first problem.

Special on Aisle 3

A 2 lb box of strawberries was on our list. Estimated (budgeted) price was $5.50. We have come across a special. 1 box of strawberries is $4, but if you buy 2, they are only $3 a piece ($6 total). And these strawberries look good. So we could choose to get the regular box and save a bit. But we do have extra money budgeted, and these strawberries look good. We could instead choose to exceed our budget by a small margin, but bring home extra strawberries. Sales are very tempting, but this is a bad decision for a couple of reasons.

  1. We only had one box on our list
  2. The total does exceed our budget (if only by a little)
  3. Strawberries go bad, and we may end up throwing out some of the "extra" strawberries

So we take only one box of strawberries and continue out of the produce section and into the rest of the store. Also, fortunately for us, we were pretty explicit in planning that we needed 2 lbs of strawberries. Had we simply had "get strawberries" on our list, we would have had a more difficult decision to make, and would have spent more time doing so. We find more items successfully (everything according to plan), although we do "remember" that we need yogurt, so it get's added, even though it isn't in the budget. Everything is doing somewhat well until we reach the cereal aisle.

No Honey Nut?

They are out of Honey Nut Cheerios. Either that, or they never had them to begin with, because they aren't on the shelf. This is a problem, because our list clearly says "Honey Nut Cheerios - 1 box". So we look around for a minute. None. So we quickly devise a solution: Just get the regular Cheerios. Ok, "no problem." We'll change the scope of our list because we believe that regular Cheerios are better than nothing. Except this solution doesn't work either, because we can't even find the regular Cheerios. At this point a few ideas about our Cheerios problem are running through our head.

  • It's unlikely that a grocery store wouldn't have any form of Cheerios, a top-selling cereal
  • It's possible that a clerk may be helpful in locating the Cheerios, or providing more information
  • It's possible that the Cheerios may be elsewhere in the store, and a clerk may direct us there
  • We could call home and ask about possible replacements for Cheerios
  • We could make an executive decision and choose another cereal like Wheaties
  • We could continue on without any Cheerios

Several of the options above involve changing the scope of our project. Some involve more time, which while it wasn't budgeted directly, still has an assumed limit. Others involve changing items, with or without approval. We eventually choose to seek a clerk. She agrees that it's odd that there aren't any Cheerios, but she doesn't immediately know the reason there aren't any Cheerios. So, she radios in to someone else to ask about it. We find out that they are simply sold out, but should have more in the next two days. We don't want to phone home, knowing that will take more time and bring someone else in on the situation. So we decide to just get Wheaties instead, even though they cost more than our estimate for the Cheerios.

We have now spent time that wasn't budgeted, selected an item that wasn't in our scope, and removed an item from the scope. Wheaties are more expensive, so we are also growing closer to exceeding our overall budget. At this point, some project managers would be looking to make up time and possibly budget. To do this we could:

  • Skip some of the isles and try to focus down on just the remaining items on the list
  • Possibly cutting some of the extra items from the list to stay under budget
  • Go put the Wheaties back and try to opt for a lower cost alternative to the Cheerios

So we do these, but things end up going even worse than before. We skip some isles to speed up our trip, but we aren't really certain which isles to skip because we didn't do advanced planning on the grocery store layout. We end up missing the peanut butter isle and have to backtrack to get that item. This costs us more time. We also go put the Wheaties back and deliberate for a minute on another choice. We end up with Fruit Loops, which are cheaper, but mentally we are disappointed.

We didn't do any kind of planning with regard to our emotional attachment to our relative success of the project. It didn't seem like we needed to, but it turns out that this was a mistake. Because we planned so close to our margins, when we met trouble we began to make poor decisions. We deviated further from the plan once we were forced from it, and the mental stress continued to push us further off the plan. The Fruit Loops were a small part of it, but it gets worse once we get to the extras.

We had originally budgeted for a bottle of red wine, and a six-pack of beer. Relative estimates were $12 and $6, respectively. But, we know we need to cut budget and go faster, so we cut the beer from the list. Again, another scope change that was a decision made during the execution phase because it was affected by previous decisions. But in reality, we weren't that far from our budget. We returned the Wheaties, and even though we added the yogurt, we aren't too far from our estimate. But we feel like we are, and that we have messed up, so we don't buy the beer. But that's only half of it.

We upgrade our wine. We have decided that because we couldn't get the beer, we can afford a nicer bottle of wine. While looking through the bottles, a clerk recommends one similar to our $12 bottle. He says it has more flavor and is an even better value. It is $21. But we get it, because it's better and we have extra money from not buying the beer. But any 3rd grader can tell you that $12 (original wine) + $6 (beer) is only $18. We are actually spending more money on the single bottle of wine than on the other two. And the crazy thing about it is we don't seem to realize or care. We are upgrading because we didn't get the beer. We have an emotional wound from messing up the Cheerios and yogurt, and are solving it with the new fancy wine.

Finally, we go to checkout, and aren't sure if we qualify for the 15 items or less line. We don't because our original list had 20 items, but that piece of information isn't anywhere on our shopping list. So we sit and count, and once we hit 16 we give up and get in line. Checkout takes longer than expected because our expectations are wrong about how long it takes to checkout. We begin to realize that our expectations about things might be wrong more often than we'd like to think. We come in $1 under our budget, so we add a Snickers bar.

I don't understand the reasoning for filling our own budget with a scope change because we can, even though we didn't plan on it and likely don't need it. It feels as though it isn't costing us anything extra, but it is. It costs $1 extra. If we end up under budget, we can use that for another project. But most of the time we don't see our budgets in this regard. They are more like caps than predictions or estimates. The "if you don't spend it you lose it" mentality doesn't apply often to personal projects, but it does for many business departments and is a cause for excessive spending.

Project Recap

We get home and realize that things did not go as planned. We deviated from our list, took longer than expected, and while overall we were under budget, we did exceed our budget on many items. In many ways the project was still a success, because we set out to get food and we did. In many other ways, it is a failure and an opportunity for lessons to be learned.

  1. Planning is great to a point, but many problems that arise cannot be anticipated. Therefore, we should be detailed but flexible in our planning.
  2. When executing, one deviation does not need to cause others. If we expect to become off track at some point, then we need to do better planning. We can plan out milestones and possible solutions for course correction.
  3. Planning while executing does not work out very often. We are often in a pressured situation and do not take all necessary points into account. Have a plan for when things go wrong.
  4. It is much easier to overrun a budget or timeline than to be under. Therefore we should change our expectations of proper timelines and budgets by accounting for unexpected problems.

A Black Swan has been defined as an event that cannot be predicted, but will be more devastating (or beneficial) than many events that can be predicted. In this sense, the best bet is to expect the unexpected, and have a plan for when the unexpected happens. This seems difficult to do since you can't really plan for something that you don't know about. You can though design your projects to not be dependent on single points of failure.

In the grocery trip, if the grocery store was closed, our project would have come to a screeching halt. We were dependent upon the grocery store's ability to do business for our project to be effective. We could have mitigated this by mapping the location of multiple grocery stores as a fallback just in case. The just in case type of planning turns out to be the best planning for Black Swans, which will come eventually.