Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper
by Rick Brenner
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, 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 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, 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 achievedor 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.
- 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? Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Teamwork Myths: Formation
- Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
- 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.
- Nonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails
- Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason why we get it wrong.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part I
- In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part II
- When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes. How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
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