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Why people next door are always late for work

Published:Sunday | May 25, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Francis Wade Sunday Business COLUMNIST

Francis Wade Sunday Business COLUMNIST

If you have ever lived near work, school or church, you may know the truth: people who live in close proximity to the workplace are often late.

It defies common sense. Why would those who travel an hour in traffic, from Spanish Town and Portmore, consistently arrive 15 minutes early, while those who don't even need to drive are never on time? Obviously, it has nothing do with the travel time. Instead, it's due to a well-studied phenomena that not only afflicts our 'no-problem' society, but humans the world over.


Psychologists gave it a name: the 'planning fallacy'. It afflicts every phase of corporate life, including strategic planning and project planning - in fact, whenever plans are made, it's likely to create a problem.

The planning fallacy, according to Wikipedia, is "a tendency for people and organisations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have past experience of similar tasks overrunning".

It was first defined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979, but it's been around since the invention of timekeeping. They discovered that we have very different points of view about future tasks, depending on what we use as our starting point.

Here's a simple example in the form of an everyday question: How long will it take you to drive to Montego Bay for a trip planned in a month's time? Take note of your answer before we continue.

Here's a different question: How long would it take the average executive in your company to drive to Montego Bay on that same date? And another: How long did it take you to drive to Montego Bay the last three times you drove?

If you have fallen into the planning fallacy, it's likely that your first answer is, by far, the most optimistic. Apparently, there's a natural tendency for us, as humans, to inflate our own abilities. It doesn't happen when we look at the performance of others because we probably use actual data to make our estimate.

Very quickly, we go through the list of executives, taking note of their driving ability, and the chances that they are likely to run into some hitches that slow them down.

When we take a look at our own past performance, it reveals that we are probably not much faster - these hitches don't just afflict executives, after all. But studies have shown that even when confronted with immediate past data, we don't use it. We persist in the planning fallacy and insist on our original, optimistic answer: 'three hours' time - easy!'

Something curious is obviously happening. Are we lying? Playing Anansi tricks with ourselves?

Neither of these is true. Instead, we tend to ignore past experience when predicting future performance. When we look at past performance, we tend to discount the hitches, arguing that they were unique and unlikely to happen again.

The flat tyre, a quick stop to get gas at a slow station, and sudden hunger for some hot 'jerkas' won't afflict us on the next trip, we reason.


We're probably right, but statistically, we're dead wrong.

The specific hitches experienced on the last three trips probably won't happen, but it's more than likely that one of an imaginary long list of hitches will, indeed, take place. That unforeseen hitch will act to slow us down, even though it's unanticipated.

In other words, I wouldn't bet that on the next trip, you'll have an urge to eat jerk chicken, but I would put money on the chance that something else happens to cause a 20-30 minute delay. I just couldn't predict what the hitch would be, but my experience on Jamaican roads tells me that I'd win.

Your tendency to disregard the facts and assume a best-case scenario, which almost never happens, is the planning fallacy at work.

As you can imagine, the planning fallacy can create time stress, cost companies millions, and ruin careers.

It's easy for managers of your company's projects to insist on the wrong thing by being over-optimistic. If the person is an expat, their lack of local data can lead to ridiculous predictions that cut short their tenure.

Given the high cost of failure, it's better to pause before making promises, and ensure that you aren't assuming an unlikely 'best case' that never will occur.

And if you live next door, assume that the short walk to your destination will be interrupted every time and account for the delay.

It's like pretending that every day is a rainy day, which causes everything to move slower. This way, the planning fallacy won't make you late and you can explain 'I only live next door' without ever feeling ashamed.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. For a summary of links to past columns, or to give feedback, email