It’s amazing how a simple tool such as a project schedule, with multiple tasks and a project completion date, can create so much shame or joy for people in an organization. Taken at face value, completed tasks and projects bring about strong emotional reactions. If the task or project is late it’s a bad thing. If they are early it’s a good thing. Very black or white. Quick judgments about the outcomes imply negative or positive behavior respectively on the project manager or team member.

It’s common to hear statements like, “The project manager must have been unorganized or did not work hard enough to keep his team on schedule.” “The business analyst really knows what she is doing, superior skill allowed her to finish the requirements document early.” These judgments sound very cut and dry but, are they correct? Actually, they could be misplaced.

The problem with the above statements is they assume estimates are sound constants and a person’s skill, experience, and behavior are the only variables. The fact is, more often than not, estimates are flawed. If a project is completed late, perhaps the time required to complete the task or project was underestimated. Conversely, if a project is completed early the duration could have been overestimated. Yes, behavior and skill do vary but no more than project schedule estimates do.

In reality, most estimates that are underestimated come from lack of experience or succumbing to management pressure. Most estimates that are overestimated also come from lack of experience or risk adverse sandbagging. A lack of experience in estimating, the level of skills people posses, and odd behavior only improve with time. But when all these factors are taken into consideration a late task or project could simply be the result of management pressure and an early task or project the result of sandbagging. Now which person deserves the shame?

Next time you observe and assess a completed task or project, remember that you shouldn’t judge the results at face value. Dig deeper and look at the underlying circumstances, experience, behavior, and skill. That’s where the truth lies, that’s where just judgments are revealed.