Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 51;   December 19, 2001: Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?

Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?

by

When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.

When we change our minds about the goals of a project, delays often result. Changing goals can cause delays even when the changes narrow the scope of the project. Why do we make so many major changes so late in development? Two possible reasons are that some goal changes seem smaller than they really are, while other goal changes masquerade as changes in tactics.

Some goal changes seem smaller than they really are
Moving the goal postsImagine that you're an office tower developer, and that your 188-story building in Singapore has in place about 80 stories of steel, 60 stories of concrete floors, and 40 stories of glass skin. One thing that won't be on the agenda of a status review meeting is switching to a different steel alloy for floors 1 through 50.
No one would consider changing something so basic so late in the project. Yet, in product development in other industries, this sort of thing happens maddeningly often. When schedules slip and budgets overrun, our first instinct — too often — is to change the design.
Using computers for new product development is one source of this problem. Whether the product is software, integrated circuits, or even legislation, products developed with software tools don't exist physically until development is fairly advanced. When we're building a skyscraper, the physical form of the building itself helps us see the folly of many proposed changes, but products developed using software tools often lack physical form. Because of this "software effect" we feel free to move the goal posts.
Some goal changes masquerade as changes in tactics
When the workpiece
isn't physical, but is
instead represented in
software, it often
seems more malleable
than it really is
Proximity to the troubles of the status quo lets us see the necessity of a change, but it also distorts our view of it. People who propose changes are usually very familiar with the reasons for the change, and very likely to see clearly — or be affected by — the consequences of not making the change. To the proposer, the change is necessary and merely tactical, while everyone else can see clearly that it's a change in goal.
Every project goes through changes, and we must learn to limit them. Too often, my change is a needed correction, while your change is needless feature-mongering. When a debate about a change has taken this form, it's possible that both sides are right — there is a real need to change tactics, but the change proposed to address that need is more than tactical.

So if you're about to propose a change, ask yourself: Am I actually moving the goal posts — are my perceptions affected by the "software effect?" And if the change is tactical: "Is it only tactical, or is it a change of goal too?" Go to top Top  Next issue: Keep a Not-To-Do List  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre 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? rbreniFPtUuiKcrXqOpwqner@ChacUIYlurOPGWGBCoWkoCanyon.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:

Chocolate chip cookiesNine Project Management Fallacies: II
Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Three simple carabinersTeam Risks
Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
A view from the false summit of the Manitou incline in ColoradoFalse Summits: I
Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
FlamesHow to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem, and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

Coaching services

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

Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof 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 a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.