Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 35;   August 27, 2014: Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper

Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper

by

Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.
Ross Marshall and Don Pugh at the kickoff meeting for the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) at Tinker Air Force Base

Ross Marshall, left, Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Executive Director, and Don Pugh from Air Force Materiel Command Headquarters, at the kickoff meeting for the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) at Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma, on August 17, 2011. ECSS, an Enterprise Resource Planning system conceived at the turn of the century, was to be operational by 2012. But it was cancelled in November, 2012, after consuming USD 1 billion, even though its objectives had been reduced to 25% of the original concept, and its delivery date had been extended to 2020.

According to Brig. Gen. Kathryn Johnson, the Air Force's director of system integration, and Robert Shofner, the Air Force's program executive officer for business and enterprise systems, one of the problems was that Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC) of Falls Church, Virginia, the prime contractor, was not able to adapt the Oracle software to meet the system requirements. CSC, which had been fired in March 2012, was thus being blamed in absentia for at least part of the failure of the project.

Air Force photo by Margo Wright.

When projects founder, their leaders, sponsors, and champions sometimes experience the foundering personally. Even if they don't experience the failure as personal, their experience of how others see the failure can have similar effects. When this happens, an overwhelming urge to repair the failure can develop. If repairs succeed, both organizational and personal needs are fulfilled. But when repair is impossible, things get more interesting.

In such cases, the project's leaders have already exhausted the obvious solutions: trying other approaches, or asking for more budget or time. They must therefore resolve the tension between the initially promised objectives and the current disappointing reality by means other than delivering what was promised, because that's plainly impossible.

Recognizing the techniques they use in such quandaries is helpful to both members of the project team, and the supervisors of the project's leaders, sponsors, and champions. Here are some techniques in common use.

Confessing failure
Confession is almost certainly the only honest approach. It's always available, but because, in most organizations, it presents significant risk to one's career, there is a tendency to avoid confession.
Expanding
Expanding the project's objectives can both conceal the failure and justify additional budget and schedule. Expansion in this form can be a cause of scope creep. See "Some Causes of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for September 4, 2002, for more.
Fleeing the scene
Flight, usually without admitting failure, works well if its true motivation can remain concealed long enough. It can take the form of promotion, transfer to another project or business unit, or "accepting new challenges" elsewhere.
Embellishing
Embellishing, or "spinning," is a technique for representing in a misleadingly positive way the results that actually were achieved. If successful, embellishing buys time — at best.
Declaring victory
The extreme form of embellishment is announcing that the effort's primary objectives have been achieved and we're now ready to focus our energies on the next challenge. Since everyone knows the current effort is a disappointment, this announcement is rarely questioned overtly.
Blowing smoke
Blowing smoke, Embellishing, or "spinning," is
a technique for representing
in a misleadingly positive
way the results that were
actually achieved
or obfuscating, can confuse decision-makers and team members alike. Making others believe that the effort is going better than it seems to be is usually just another delay tactic.
Misrepresenting status fraudulently
Outright lying is always possible, but because the risk of exposure is ordinarily so high, and the consequences so severe, this method is most practical for those who work in very secure or highly compartmentalized environments, where "knowledge firewalls" limit the chances of exposure.
Blaming
Placing responsibility for the project's troubles at the feet of the defenseless is a useful technique, because it so clearly absolves those who are doing the blaming. Defenseless individuals include those who have already departed the organization and those whose credibility is already so eroded — sometimes unjustly — that they cannot refute the claims made against them.

Do you know of a project in trouble? How many of these tactics have you seen? Go to top Top  Next issue: Team Risks  Next Issue

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Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

FootprintsStatus Risk and Risk Status
One often-neglected project risk is the risk of inaccurately reported status. That shouldn't be surprising, because we often fail to report the status of the project's risks, as well. What can we do to better manage status risk and risk status?
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Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
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We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
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Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
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Managing risk entails coping with unwanted events that might or might not happen, and which can be costly if they do happen. Here's Part II of our exploration of coping strategies for unwanted events.

See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Astronauts Musgrave and Hoffman install corrective optics during the Hubble Telescope's Service Mission 1Coming October 5: How We Waste Time: Part I
Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share, but some use it more wisely than others. Here's a little catalog of ways we waste time. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
An apple and a skyscraper full of windowsAnd on October 12: How We Waste Time: Part II
We're all pretty good at wasting time. We're also fairly certain we know when we're doing it. But we're much better at it than we know. Here's Part II of a little catalog of time wasters, emphasizing those that are outside — or mostly outside — our awareness. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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