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!
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- And on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
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