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adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Mistakes

It is not advisable to rely on dimensions off a plan. If you do, it is at your own risk”.

I blinked. My mind working through the implications of the statement. A tacit acknowledgement that the final product won’t match the plan. Materials different. Mistakes made. Workmanship imprecise.

Then I couldn’t help but smile at the delicious irony. A genuine Catch-22 presented itself.

Long lead times and logistical supply chain challenges meant ordering early was a must, if delivery dates were to be met. Every delay incurs real expenditure and opportunity cost. Inflation eroding purchasing power, compounding at around 10% per annum, calculated daily. Opportunistic merchants gouging customers at an even greater rate, attempting to recoup perceived pandemic losses. The British pound shedding greatness by the day, while the rest of the world collectively watches in stunned disbelief as the new government found a way to outshine its predecessors in its capacity for committing economic self-harm.

Yet hard-won experience tells us to view the world as it is, not the magical thinking of how we wish it to be. If we measure based on actuals, then the parts being ordered should fit. Those who measure based on hopes, dreams, or plans are destined for disappointment. Their behaviour is the very opposite of the old builder’s maxim of “measure twice, cut once”.

There is no right answer.

Just risk versus reward. Uncertainty.

Roll the dice and hope to get lucky? Or remain on the sidelines until chance gives way to certainty.

This all left me a little puzzled.

We live in a world where we have the science to build a functional transistor just a single atom wide. Where we have cameras powerful enough to read the text of a newspaper from outer space.

Yet these plans were described by their author as being too unreliable to work from. Not because the plans were inaccurate or wrong necessarily, but because it was unreasonable and unrealistic to expect them to reflect the reality that they produce.

The exact same plans that a resource-starved council planning officer had spent months ignoring, then days arguing over as his statutory processing deadline loomed large. Building lines. Elevations. Lines of site. Precedent. The percentage of the block being built upon. Haggling down to the very last centimetre.

The exact same plans, viewed as indicative by the hand that drew them, that a cartel of party wall surveyors had spent weeks in dispute over. Arguing by the hour, while charging vast sums to prolong the problems rather than solve them. Modern-day measurement technology crashing into century-old rough and ready building practices. Never a problem in days gone by. The perils of precision.

The exact same plans, which their creator cautioned against relying upon when sizing anything fixed such as kitchens or windows, that structural engineers and building control officers had based their sums upon to calculate load-bearing capacities and conformance to the ever-changing building and environmental regulations.

It made me a little disillusioned if I’m honest. We could precisely place 20 billion of those microscopic transistors onto a computer chip the size of a postage stamp. Yet we choose not to precisely place anything on a building site.

We shouldn’t complain too much, it is an outcome society chooses for itself. The kids whom the school system fails exit with few viable vocational options. Early years childcare. Learning a trade. Joining the military. Common paths all. Yet is it any surprise that the kid who struggled with high school algebra or geometry also struggles as an adult to follow a scale plan or correctly size a building full of angles, pitches, and joints?

How many properties have you lived in over the years, that displayed evidence of this type of acceptable incompetence? Dog legs in walls. Doors that can’t be opened without hitting other doors. Off-centre windows. Random boxes covering all manner of poorly placed joists and girders. Adjacent rooms on the same level of a house having floors that are a step up or a step down from one another.

Few homeowners and no competent developers would consciously design features such as these into their projects. Yet those unfortunate “features” are all too common in the end product. Good enough, rather than good. Too expensive and time-consuming to fix once they are implemented.

Feeling frustrated, I wondered why we tolerate such acceptable incompetence?

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t just in the building trade.

Over the years I’ve worked with dozens of megacorp clients, each of whom invariably had numerous software development projects in flight. However, none of those clients were in the business of software development, yet all of them employed large IT departments and armies of consultants to develop software. What was delivered by most (but not all) of those projects disappointed their sponsors. Late. Over budget. Reduced scope. Many failed to deliver anything at all.

So bad were they at executing to a plan, that many sites have embraced variants of the agile methodology that abandon planning altogether. Pursuing flexibility. Eschewing any form of milestone or deadline. Admitting, then embracing, that they were making it up as they go along. Keep on iterating until the money runs out!

How many financial advisors over the years have provided seemingly sensible financial plans to their clients? Then when it came time to execute that plan, they steered them through a gamut of high fee, high churn positions. Active funds. Dubious tax avoidance schemes. Exotic instruments. Stock picking. Timing the market.

Piling on complexity, and creating a lucrative need for wealth and financial management services.

What about the notorious “finfluencers”? Those have-a-go heroes and enthusiastic amateurs who flood social media and the internet with financial commentary and product placements advertorials? The Australian government recently sought to muzzle them, on pain of legal prosecution and hefty fines, should any unregulated pundit publish thoughts that may be construed as financial advice.

Seeking, amongst other things, to shield the unwitting public from oversimplified narratives and unsubstantiated claims. Guaranteed riches by going all in on crypto, ponzi scams, or ultra-exclusive time-limited platinum property investment courses. “Safe” withdrawal rules espoused by those who don’t live them. Early retirement promoted by those who aren’t. Shady side hustles with affiliate commission generating startup costs.

The regulator was purportedly moved to act by a few bad apples, the charlatans and shysters. But also took out relatable personal finance bloggers chronicling their own journey as collateral damage. An overreach certainly.

Were plans based upon those easy answers planning to fail? Probably.

Is that any better than failing to plan at all? Probably not.

Most of us know what we should do.

Eat well.

Exercise.

Sleep.

Spend less than we earn, invest the difference in low-cost diversified index funds. Then wait patiently.

For many of us, the problem is not in the planning, but in the execution.

We get bored. Complacent. Distracted. Impatient. Attracted to the latest shiny thing.

So we play. Indulge ourselves. Adjusting the balance. Tweaking the levers. Generating friction. Incurring fees. Hampering out progress. Hindering the attainment of our goals.

Our own forms of acceptable incompetence. Little different from a self-destructive government or a numerically challenged tradesperson.

I’ve heard it said that managing a building project is the second most stressful thing a person can do after planning a wedding. The sort of thing endured once, but rarely willingly volunteered for twice.

I have some doubts about the veracity of that statement. Clearly the observer has never worked at an investment bank, migrated, been fired, shot at, married, a new parent, or a palliative carer.

That said, the sentiment is correct. A build is like becoming a grown-up: “don’t do it, it’s a trap!”. But it is also a learning exercise. An opportunity to observe failings in systems and their participants, then reflect on whether we exhibit any similar weaknesses or failings in our own approaches. We almost certainly do, but may be blind to them if we aren’t consciously seeking them out.

Learning from the mistakes of others is often cheaper than learning by doing, though in the case of a build (or a failing economy) we end up paying for it regardless.


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6 Comments

  1. Bernie 29 September 2022

    Reminds me of the transcription error the architect made on our plans. Two digits swapped in the width of the plot leading us to think the new extension would be wider. Ultimately the extension would never be wider than the plot, but the imagined outcome in drawings was different to reality due to narrower rooms from this error. Builder, unsurprised, had seen it all before. Us, surprised, expecting accountability like that in our own occupations, until we realised that ‘accountability’ in some occupations is an imaginary concept

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 30 September 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Bernie. The older I get, the more I come to believe accountability is optional in much the same way ethics and charity have become. I’m pretty sure that isn’t a positive advance in society. Perhaps it has ever been thus, and it is an illusion we grow out of like believing in happy endings or karma.

  2. Bob 1 October 2022

    Accountability works if you can hold the contractor or company to it. I had a bit part with a telecoms company who submitted a low bid for a government IT contract (no, not that one). But for once we were all sent on project management courses.

    The telecoms company slavered at the thought of the extra padding “out of scope” extras would provide. It never materialised and the company was held accountable to complete the job, on time and to budget, before going bust and bought by another conglomerate.

    On a more personal note, the look on a double glazing reps face when I mentioned that I would be paying a couple of hundred pounds for an independent chap to pop in for half an hour each day to check their work.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 2 October 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Bob. It is nice to hear of a happy ending (to the project, if not the company). In a small market, particularly one controlled by oligopolies, small service providers can get to play that trick once. But rarely twice unfortunately.

      Client flexing and demanding scope creep to compensate for their own poor planning is endemic, relying upon “the customer is always right” and the fact they are one of the few/only games in town for the supplier.

      I’ve worked at several sites over the years where engineering or PM candidates having experience at a certain overseas national telco on their CV meant an automatic no when it came to filtering, the feeling was the corporate culture there taught all the wrong behaviours and bad habits.

      Well played on the double glazing, I hope you’ve experienced many years warm and watertight enjoyment.

  3. Neil 3 October 2022

    Wordy, but interesting

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