The Phrase “Delivers on Time and on Budget” is Worthless



nyone can Forest Gump their way into delivering a project on time and on budget.

Mentally challenged and against fantastical odds, Forest Gump unwittingly lives through an odyssey saturated with triumphs. It’s one of the greatest films of all time. However, to help illustrate our point, we must offend our cinephile sensibilities by offering the following oversimplification; the guy was f*cking lucky. In movieland, this improbable tale equated to cinematic gold. In the real world of project management such fiction is a decaying bag of fool’s gold that is virtually worthless like the expression “on time and on budget.”

We wince every time it crosses our path. It’s a hollow phrase that is everywhere. It’s uttered millions of times a day. Job postings and CV’s are amusingly littered with it. There's typically that one person at a comedy show who always laughs disproportionately loud at every punchline, and sometimes even beforehand. When you come across the joke, “We’re looking for someone that always delivers on time and on budget,” feel free to bellow out the same side splitting laugh as that lunatic.

Achieving the measure “on time and on budget,” was originally meant to be a shorthand denoting that a project realized all the standard metrics. However, this figure of speech is now being interpreted literally. Hence, rendering it grossly incomplete. For instance, amongst its carelessly forgotten core elements are the constraint “scope” and the omnipresent attribute “quality”. At the very least these two must always be taken into account (of course, the more, the merrier).

With time and budget alone, a company is not only prone to inadequately measuring the success of its projects, but also incapable of appropriately identifying how well it was managed. In such a setting a project can be delivered in poor quality or with an unfinished scope, and it would still be categorized as a success. All just because the project has met the narrow parameters of the expression, “on time and on budget.” Moreover, based on this the project manager is showered with accolades. Yet, if additional attributes were to be factored in, the true grade of that project manager’s capabilities would be revealed. As in mathematics, within project management how one has arrived at an end result is just as important as the final outcome.

A sensible manager will know that a project can be delivered beyond the original agreed time and budget, and could still be classified as well managed - the two are not mutually exclusive. (If that last sentence makes absolutely no sense to you, guess what type of manager you are). Being able to make the distinction, particularly during arduous periods, is a sign of an organization’s maturity. Reaching this elevated plateau always requires taking into consideration more than just time and budget. Not doing so means continually getting duped by pseudo successes that only prove that people have an astonishing capacity for self-delusion.