Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
August 27, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 35
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

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
Bookmark and Share

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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? rbrenavHtkyRuEDLKdzYjner@ChacUErFSQhlDnrCsijZoCanyon.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.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeThe Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources
Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchBeyond Our Control
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Robert F. Scott and three of his party arrive at a tent left by Roald Amundsen near the South PoleManaging Non-Content Risks: Part I
When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets things done.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse 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.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur (left) and Willie Keeler (right)Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part II
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

A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesComing February 17: Conversation Despots
Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics. Available here and by RSS on February 17.
Donald Trump, a candidate for the nomination of the Republican Party for President in 2016And on February 24: Allocating Airtime: Part I
The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here? Available here and by RSS on February 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenafxUdvWDoMDOLHfSner@ChaciwJMZjMnvdBpXUFWoCanyon.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

Public seminars

High-Voltage Brainstorming: Leading Teams to More Brilliant Ideas Faster
AlthoHigh-Voltage Brainstormingugh most of us are very familiar with a technique known as brainstorming, many overestimate its effectiveness. Serious research indicates that, as commonly practiced, brainstorming produces results that tend to overlook some brilliant ideas, and might even include ideas that actually have little promise. In this eye opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides us as we explore the sources of the deficiencies of brainstorming, and then suggests concrete tips for mitigating those deficiencies. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople 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's an upcoming date for this program:

Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Learn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Learn how to make your virtual global team sing.
Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
Learn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.