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


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 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 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.
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

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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenLBkuQYSTljrosFisner@ChacdKOQyjjdeKZCEncnoCanyon.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:

My right foot. Arrow indicates the location of the break.My Right Foot
There's nothing like an injury or illness to teach you some life lessons. Here are some things I learned recently when I temporarily lost some of my independence.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
Panama Canal constructionAvoid Having to Reframe Failure
Yet again, we missed our goal — we were late, we were over budget, or we lost to the competition. But how can we get something good out of it?
Magic Lantern Slide of a dog jumping through a hoopJust-In-Time Hoop-Jumping
Securing approvals for projects, proposals, or other efforts is often called "jumping through hoops." Hoop-jumping can be time-consuming and frustrating. Here are some suggestions for jumping through hoops efficiently.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioComing March 21: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
Santa Claus arrives at 57th and Broadway in New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeAnd on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

Coaching services

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

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!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn 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.