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? rbrenbIPpnzGsNusqgOHtner@ChacrdPWdNEJvrUElOezoCanyon.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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Help for Asking for Help
- When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
- Logically Illogical
- Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
- Management Debt: Part II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- How to Make Good Guesses: Strategy
- Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
- False Summits: Part II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 5: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part IV
- Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
- And on August 12: When the Answer Isn't the Point: Part I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenyYKBxFClQYJLOKdTner@ChacaYhJKWsbSUrkdYOwoCanyon.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
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
- 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 organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Team Development for Leaders
- Teams at work are often teams in name only — they're actually just groups. True teams are able to achieve much higher levels of performance than groups can. In this program, Rick Brenner shows team leads and team sponsors the techniques they need to form their groups into teams, and once they are teams, how to keep them there. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: