When the Americans took over the construction of the Panama Canal from the French in 1903 (to the tune of $40 million), they made a big mistake: The engineers assumed it was “just a big railroad job.” They didn’t realize digging a canal was so much harder. They presented schedules and completion deadlines that were impossible to keep, and that only made President Theodore Roosevelt angry and impatient.

You may not have Roosevelt breathing down your neck, but it is common to commit the same critical mistake that his engineers did. When you misunderstand the project’s scope and needs, you will create an unrealistic timeline. When that happens, failure is almost certainly guaranteed.

That’s because estimating is difficult—and the further out in time one goes, the more inaccurate the estimate will be. Do the complete opposite: Focus less on the bird’s-eye view of the entire project and break it down into individual tasks and study these in detail. When you assess a project’s time demands per task, estimates become more reliable.

Keep in mind that good timelines require real honesty. What can you really accomplish? The only way to answer that accurately is to take your project down to the incremental level. Then, when you think about the project’s overall timeline, you’ll be able to make a more confident estimate, not a guess-timate.

Key Takeaways:

  • Remember that estimates of long timelines are usually wrong
  • Communicate with your team what can be achieved within reason
  • Fixate on the work in front of you and more immediate tasks
  • Be practical and train yourself to think in smaller increments so that you’ll be successful …. and on time
  • Track what you’ve done in order to use that experience in the retrospective to help you improve


Learn more about our project management methodology.