(@tgoetz) is a
Iodine, a digital
based in San
Beware the Optimism Trap
Many young firms, including Tesla, struggle
with deadlines. You have to get real about
setting production schedules.
THOMAS GOETZ ; LAUNCHPAD
perspective. She pointed her finger at miscommunication
between what she called “this should be easy” engineers, who
bring all their energy and optimism to a project, and the busi-
ness leaders making the schedule, as well as the inevitable
setbacks. “The problem,” Trapani notes, “is the optimism.”
It’s hardly the engineers’ fault. Optimism is the beguiling
trickster that convinces each of us that a project will be quick
and easy, that this team won’t run into any unexpected wrin-
kles, and that this time will be di;erent. Optimism is Musk’s
two-headed snake: It allows him—and all entrepreneurs—to
dream up the impossible, but it makes us wildly underestimate
how long it will take to make the impossible real.
So if optimism is our devil, what do we do about it? First,
says Trapani, chop up the project into smaller, more reasonable
tasks. Less scope means less hope and more realism. Second,
understand just how much uncertainty is baked into a project’s
definition along the way. The more uncertainty, the more delay.
Third, always overestimate. Overestimating isn’t just doubling
or tripling your projection. As Trapani notes, tripling it is just
BS’ing it. Instead, here’s when to pocket optimism and expect
the worst. Build it into the plan. Odds are you’ll still be late.
This wisdom is relevant far beyond software. Musk, after all,
is wrestling with assembling cars—very big hardware combined
with a ton of software, at large scale. Most of us struggle with
projects of far less complexity, though no less significant. No
matter what industry we’re in, we’d all do well to remember
there’s a di;erence between when we want something to happen, when it should happen, and when it actually will happen.
The sooner we admit this, the faster we’ll be able to move on.
lon Musk is a hero to many
entrepreneurs, for many
reasons—his vision, his
audacity, his tenacity. But
during Tesla’s annual share-
holders meeting, he showed
another, less common quality:
humility. He acknowledged
something that few entre-
preneurs, let alone Elon
Musk, have been willing to
admit: “I think I have an issue
Pegged back by a series of
delays in Model 3 production and pummeled by critics, Musk
admitted that “I kind of say when I think [something] can
occur, but then I am typically optimistic about these things.
But, maybe, hopefully less optimistic over time. It pretty much
always happens but not exactly within the time frame. This
is something I’m trying to get better at.” Musk’s admission
strikes home, because it’s something all entrepreneurs struggle with: planning how long a project will take. It’s perhaps
the most challenging part of running a new business.
God knows it’s something I’ve struggled with in my own
entrepreneurial e;orts. When I was a journalist, deadlines
were hard and fast, because there were (and—ahem—still are)
actual magazines and newspapers to print and distribute.
When I switched to software, a place where vaporware can
drag on for years, I was surprised to discover that, despite
thorough project documentation and clear task delegation,
every schedule dissolved under fuzzy guesstimates and missed
deadlines. Projects inevitably take two or three times as long
as planned. We could be on schedule for 80 percent of a project only to have the last 20 percent drag on for weeks.
We aren’t alone. In software, we all live by the so-called
90/90 rule, which states that the first 90 percent of a project
takes 90 percent of the time, and the last 10 percent of a project
takes the other 90 percent of the time (which is, you know,
impossible). Another law, defined by cognitive science expert
Douglas Hofstadter, states that a project always takes longer
than expected, even when you factor in Hofstadter’s law.
Gina Trapani, one of my heroes of pragmatic software devel-
opment and a honcho at Postlight, recently o;ered some useful
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