Dealing with Negative Progress
by Rick Brenner
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Sometimes projects experience setbacks — already-completed work becomes useless after people discover problems that require new approaches incompatible with work completed. When the pattern is common, its source might lie neither in the projects, nor in the teams that experience setbacks. Sometimes, the source of the pattern lies in the culture of the organization, in the way it's run, or in the way people view negative progress itself.
Here are some insights to help you reduce the likelihood of experiencing negative progress.
The Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Several setbacks occurred during its construction, but perhaps the most dire involved the suspension cables. Over a period of at least six months, a corrupt contractor delivered to the bridge construction company more than 200 tons of defective steel cable. By the time the fraud was discovered, the defective material had already been installed in the bridge suspension cables, and it could not be removed. The bridge engineer calculated that this would weaken the cables from a margin of six times maximum required strength to only five times maximum strength. He addressed this by adding an additional 150 wires to each cable, and they remain in place to this day. The contractor carried out his malfeasance by switching rejected material for accepted material after the inspection but before delivery. The public was not informed at the time, and the only penalty exacted was the cost of the material in the additional cables installed on the bridge. Photo by Peter Basich, courtesy New York City Department of Transportation.
- Accept the bad news as good news
- When you discover unexpected complexity or an unanticipated problem, accept its significance. Be glad you're now aware of the problem — awareness is the first step to resolution. Acknowledgment is the second. The alternative to acknowledgment, denial, is a great way to mess things up even more.
- Change your tactics or strategy
- When things aren't going well, adjust tactics or strategy. Sometimes people convince themselves that they've made adjustments when they really haven't — they've just renamed or rearranged the old approaches. This happens, in part, because making real adjustments sometimes feels like acknowledging failure. To determine whether the adjustments are real, notice how people feel about them. If some people are really upset about the adjustments, they're probably real.
- Increase information distribution
- Most negative progress involves information that was known to some, but not enough of the right people. It's likely that more negative progress awaits you, and information sharing can prevent some of it. Encourage people to share information and teach each other more of what they know. See "What Haven't I Told You?," Point Lookout for December 11, 2002.
- Take smaller bites
- Perhaps project goals are too aggressive — the organization might lack the skills or resources required. Carefully review all activities to determine whether other such overly ambitious efforts are underway. See "Geese Don't Land on Twigs," Point Lookout for June 13, 2001.
- Reward honesty and failure
- Investigate your recognition practices regarding successes, ethics, and failures. If you aren't honoring at least some failures, you're encouraging their concealment, and that practice increases the likelihood of future negative progress. Rewarding success regularly but only rarely rewarding integrity, honesty, conscientiousness, reliability, originality, or courage drives these other attributes underground. This can increase the risk of setbacks, because these attributes are your best insurance against further surprises.
- Reduce overload
- If you aren't honoring
at least some failures,
- Probably the most effective — and most difficult — change an organization can make is to reduce the number of projects underway. Overloaded people can't focus on anything long enough to do much good. They feel that they can't afford to explore, experiment, or take the kind of risks that lead to breakthroughs. Lighten the load to enhance productivity. See "Make Space for Serendipity," Point Lookout for September 25, 2002.
Any effort to reduce setbacks across the organization could itself encounter setbacks. Since the organization's limitations in preventing or dealing with setbacks can become an issue in such a change, making this change can be particularly difficult. Top Next Issue
The information about the Brooklyn Bridge is in a wonderful book by David McCullough, The Great Bridge: The epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Order from Amazon.com
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness
- Virtual Communications: Part III
- Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here's Part III of some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Discussion Distractions: Part II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- Tangled Thread Troubles
- Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: