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
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send 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 Project Management
- Bois Sec!
- When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again — if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both cheaper and faster.
- Project Improvisation Fundamentals
- Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
- Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
- Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
- 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.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: Part II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.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
- Human-Centered Risk Management
- Most of us can assess technological risks, but risks related to human behavior tend to resist our best efforts. This session provides a framework for evaluating risks related to the behavior of individuals, teams, organizations and people generally. Human-centered risk differs from technological or market risk, because objective evaluation requires acknowledging personal and organizational limitations and failures. Since some of those limitations and failures might apply to the people assessing the risks, or to their superiors, there's a tendency to deny them or to explain them away. Our approach examines capability, organization, context, risk mitigation, and workplace politics. It has tools for guiding the assessment and management of human-centered risk, and we show how to extend these tools to suit your situation. You'll learn how to identify sources of risk in human behavior; recognize systemic and individual barriers to acknowledging risk; assess the effects of organizational turbulence; determine the risk associated with inappropriate internal risk transfer; estimate the effects of team dysfunction, toxic conflict and turnover; and measure the impact of workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- 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 and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: