Mitigating Overruns: Survey Says…
Publication: Project Management Institute
(Times change and so do links. The original link to this post is no longer available online.)
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch and Conrado Morlan

Unplanned delays and project overruns are two critical challenges that continue to haunt even the most competent project managers. Are there tools or techniques to mitigate or avoid these critical problems? We polled project management professionals from around the world to find out.

Survey respondents provided a variety of best practices. The most common responses were:

Requirements gathering and stakeholder expectation management.

Having a clear definition of requirements and stakeholder expectations will enable the project team to focus on the core of the project and be able to set an action plan and more realistic cost and effort estimates.

Risk management and contingency planning.

A clear definition of risk and an associated contingency plan help the project manager to proactively and promptly address issues that impact activity duration and associated cost. One CEO from Brazil talked about the importance of “constantly monitoring the project environment where the field activities are happening.” In this way, one can get an even broader view of potential risks and adjust accordingly.

Management reserves.

Related to risk management, it is helpful to be aware of the possibility of unknown variables in the project that might require additional cash. Some respondents mentioned that allocated reserves are often tied to industry and a culture’s tolerance for risk. The latter may be a particularly important factor, considering that over 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that the culture in which they are working shows no or low risk tolerance.

Management by stages.

Projects can be broken into stages by milestone or deliverable. Progress can then be assessed to decide if the next stage should continue as planned or if it will need to be modified.

Clear definition of when the project will be completed.

Never-ending projects will always experience overruns and delays. Having a clear scope definition, a strict change management policy and mandatory governance will enable project managers to complete the scope and plan for change requests that will complement and enhance the completed project.


Whether using formal communication plans or informal cross-organizational discussions, the consensus was to communicate openly and often. Building relationships and always being sincere were just two of the tools mentioned to help improve communication. When the communication is effective and runs both ways, it will be easier for the project manager to spot trouble early on and mitigate accordingly.

Localizing Best Practices.

The appropriate use of best practices can depend on factors specific to the project manager’s local environment. In some countries, there are mandates in place to reduce or eliminate frequent project delays and overruns. However, only 6 percent of the respondents confirmed that the use is mandatory at the company and country levels, whereas 48 percent said it is not mandatory at either level.

More commonly, companies instruct project managers to use specific techniques and tools in the management process. These include public formal documents (17 percent), private formal documents (32 percent), presentations (15 percent), articles in project management magazines (11 percent) and other formats (25 percent).

Beyond mandates, however, project managers should consider the impact of the cultural environment in which they are working, as noted in PMI’s Researching the Value of Project Management study. Respondents were asked how factors such as egalitarian vs. hierarchical sense of relationships, tight vs. loose sense of time, and group vs. individual orientation affected the avoidance of overruns and delays. The two with the most significant impacts were working in cultures with a tight sense of time (25 percent) and a strong sense of hierarchy (22 percent). In one case, a respondent shared that difficulties can arise when cultures “set unrealistic expectations in stone before gathering enough data to validate them.”

The causes of project delays and budget overruns stem from countless factors. These problems cannot be solved thoroughly if these factors are not identified and managed. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; however, the context, or “fit,” as noted in PMI’s Researching the Value of Project Management study, is always critical when selecting the most effective approach for a particular project, company, country and/or national culture.

About the Survey

Project management practitioners were contacted through various channels, including a direct e-mail campaign, LinkedIn discussions, Facebook and Twitter, and asked to complete an online survey. Seventy-nine respondents participated. The majority of the responses (62 percent) were a result of social media efforts, whereas direct-mail respondents accounted for the remainder of the responses. Those surveyed represented professionals from five different geographic areas: North America (54 percent), Latin America (19 percent), Europe (14 percent), Asia (11 percent) and Africa (1 percent).

Respondents also represented diversity in terms of their roles within the organization. Forty-three percent were either project or program managers, whereas 14 percent were directors of project management offices. Forty-three percent represented other positions within organizations, including CEOs, regional directors, consultants, heads of operations and senior planning engineers.

Many respondents were seasoned professionals, with 86 percent bringing more than eight years of experience to their jobs, and the remaining 14 percent having one to seven years of experience.