Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 26;   June 27, 2007: Dealing with Negative Progress

Dealing with Negative Progress


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.

Suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn

Suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which 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.

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,
you're encouraging
their concealment
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ethical Influence: I  Next Issue

Order from AmazonThe 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre 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? rbrenfGzzAtWgMHURRgVxner@ChacTmhcHPrEpzZwDSbeoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

What not to eat on the phone: Peanut butterVirtual Communications: 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.
Using an information kioskKnowing Where You're Going
Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
The Town of Wescott, Wisconsin is recognized as Tree City 2005Workplace Myths: Motivating People
Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
The giant sequoiaThe Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Computer-generated image of the third stage ignition for Mars Climate OrbiterConfirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenCagURGHNwQxekTGBner@ChacdpkxBQYrVqGGjYDboCanyon.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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.