Not in Our Stars
Vince Bailey / October 2018
With a little luck... we can make this whole damn thing work out.—Paul McCartney
The title for this month’s column is taken out of context, and Shakespeare would be turning in his grave if he knew I’d be using it to make a case for the dominant intervention of fate. In fact though, like the Bard of Avon, I’ve always weighed in on the side of personal responsibility regarding the outcome of most scenarios. I staunchly held that view, that is, until I spent a few years making a living as an estimator. Don’t get me wrong, I always do my best to be more of a quantifier than a guesstimator. But as many times as circumstances beyond my control intrude on my best intentions, it tends to make me believe that “it’s better to be lucky than to be good,” as they say. It never ceases to amaze me how much we bidmeisters pride ourselves in our prodigious skill sets, and yet a great number of our successes rely on nothing more than blind luck?
I believe we are like fishermen in this respect. One of my sons is an avid angler. He gauges his expertise as a fisherman by the number and size of the trout, bass or pike he’s reeled in over the years. He’ll tell you he attributes his success to his extensive knowledge of fishing factors in certain locations, such as the depth and temperature of the water, the indigenous insect population of an area, the time of day and the weather—all factors that affect the feeding habits of his finny prey. What he won’t talk about are all the times he’s been skunked due to unknowable conditions, like sudden unanticipated changes in the wind, weather and sunlight, or changes in the finicky feeders’ preferred fare du jour.
Similarly, we bidmeisters, in spite of our highly developed and widely acclaimed skills, are subject to random unseen forces that affect our bids, and quite frequently so. For instance, developers may or may not decide to fund a project that we’ve bid on, depending on the whimsical winds of the economy (I personally had three awards in the works when the bubble burst 10 years ago; none of the three projects were ever built), or out of common sticker shock when they’ve finally seen the real numbers. Then there are owner-developers who are not serious about following through on a project in the first place but are just “testing the waters” for their speculation at our expense.
Moreover, there are those force majeure, or “acts of God,” circumstances that often intervene on our projects. I know a particularly unlucky estimator who was awarded the drywall on a sizeable wood-frame hotel project that was subsequently struck by lightning and burned to the ground before it was stocked. And speaking of random circumstances, I was once awarded a classroom building at the University of New Mexico–Albuquerque, only to have the project put on indefinite hold when the excavator uncovered multiple human skeletons. Being Albuquerque, everyone jumped to the conclusion that these were the unfortunate victims of a drug deal gone bad. But it was just my luck that the bony remnants were soon identified as prehistoric natives—former inhabitants of the area—and so the entire location was deemed an archeological site, never to be built upon.
Unanticipated fluctuations in material costs can also have significant impact on a proposal, usually in an adverse way. For example, your favorite supplier may have given you preferred pricing on a project, but could not hold his pricing beyond award due to a spike handed down from the manufacturer. Or perhaps you were vigilant enough to see an escalation coming, but the other guy did not, thus giving him a stupid advantage.
And speaking of stupid, I can say with confidence that the unknowable factor that has the most impact on a bid lies with “the other guy.” The great unknown that is inherent in the bidding process is what the competition is thinking (or not thinking). He may be desperate to fill a slot, and bid aggressively. His historical data may be skewed. He may have missed some major condition. Or he may just be exercising his proclivity for being stupid. Whatever it is, you just don’t know.
Of course, luck is not always negative, as when you are (unknowingly) the sole bidder on a project. That or when the low bidder is so stupid low that his number cannot be relied upon.
I think in these positive cases, the better estimator analogy would be the golfer who gets a hole in one. No one doubts that it was his skill level that got him onto the green, but you will never convince me that it wasn’t the fickle finger of fate that prodded that ball into the cup.
Anyway, all this talk about fate and fortune might lead a rational person to resort to good luck charms: rabbits’ feet, horse shoes, dream catchers, alligators’ teeth, and my favorite Irish charm, the four-leaf clover—take your pick.
Not that I’m superstitious—well, maybe just a little stitious.
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.