Irrational Optimism
Play • 8 min

In this episode of Beneficial Intelligence, I discuss irrational optimism. IT people are too optimistic. It is a natural consequence of our ability to build something from nothing. Our creations are not subject to gravity or other laws of physics. A builder cannot decide halfway through a construction project that he wants to swap out the foundation, but IT regularly changes the framework in mid-project. 

Similar optimism informs our project plans. For some reason, we assume that everything will go the way we plan it. Fred Brooks first wrote about programmer optimism in his classic "The Mythical Man-Month" back in 1975. He points out that there is indeed a certain probability that each task will be completed on schedule. But because modern IT projects consist of hundreds of tasks, the probability of every one going right is low. Even with an unrealistic 99% chance of success, having only 100 tasks reduces the overall probability of all tasks to finish on schedule to 37%. 

Sadly, our irrational optimism also extends to the business cases we present to management for our projects.  I am regularly presented with drafts of investor presentations that hopeful startups want to pitch. The optimism is palpable, but there is never any realistic consideration of all the things that can go wrong. 

As a CIO or CTO, you need to make sure you have some pessimists on your team. Not the kind of pessimists you find in Legal and Compliance, who are fighting tooth and nail to ensure no new project ever gets off the ground. But a kind of pragmatic pessimist who can look at your projects and business plans and tell you what might go wrong. These people are rather rare in IT organization, which is why this is one of the things I'm helping my customers with. Unless you add a counterweight to your IT organization, your projects will continue to fail due to irrational optimism. 


Beneficial Intelligence is a weekly podcast with stories and pragmatic advice for CIOs, CTOs, and other IT leaders. To get in touch, please contact me at

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