Failing Projects – A Sum of All Fears
Guest Post by Malcolm Peart (first posted on CERM ® RISK INSIGHTS – reposted here with permission)
What is ‘the sum of all fears‘…apart from a Hollywood movie? During WW2 Winston Churchill knew the risk of failure and he postulated that, even when courageous people amalgamate, they will know fear:
“…take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together – what do you get? The sum of [all] their fears”. War is a much more serious endeavour than any civilian project but fear is fear. If a project teeters into trouble the Project Team will fear failure. They must then deal with this reaction and have the courage to overcome trouble and avoid failure.
Courage comes from rational thinking and conscious decisions rather than a ‘fight or flight‘ reaction. The questions of “what decision will be made and when” and “is that decision ‘right’” are fundamental to recovery. The project players (client, contractors, consultant and suppliers) will experience many fears and need both truth and trust.
Fear of Failure
Nobody likes to fail, but projects can become troubled and impending failure can cause an adrenalin rush as the fear of failure kicks-in. Even experienced project managers can experience this fear of failure, or atychiphobia. This stops us from doing the ‘right thing’ and changing ‘what’s wrong’ while stagnating in the hope that it will be all right in the end as they deny that a problem exists at all; grief has set in.
This fear brings out a reluctance to try new ideas or be innovative and adapt. After all, the ‘trouble’ may only be a temporary ‘glitch’ and may ‘go away’. Atychiphobia also results in hesitance and being overly careful and, as the saying goes, “he who hesitates is lost”. If a team doubts their ability or strives for complete perfection before acting this is hesitance, and time as well as opportunities are lost.
Fear of failing means that the team analyse and explore every risk and scenario so that ‘nothing [further] can go wrong’. A late plan (good, bad or indifferent) will be of little use after the horse has bolted. Atychiphobia can paralyse decision-making and failure is inevitable as even decisions are feared.
Fear of Decisions
“It’s never wrong to do the right thing” said Mark Twain and in today’s faster paced society it’s now said, “It’s never too late to make things right“. Doing the right thing timeously requires decisions but the fear of making a wrong decision is decidophobia.
Decidophobia also wastes precious time as the sufferer gathers as much information as possible to avoid making a wrong decision. During this time some project players will persist in ‘fighting’ to save their project while others take ‘flight’ physically by leaving or retreat into denial and ‘fly’ from the problem.
But ‘fighters’ are not always positive; they can include the ‘soothsayers’ who say ‘I told you so‘ and ‘inquisitors’ who flush out scapegoats after shooting the messengers of bad tidings. Inquisitors demand forensic reports as to what, when, why, and how things went wrong and who was responsible. This is history which is deliberated over and debated without action despite the project needing geography.
The procrastination and punctiliousness of an enquiry have always been good excuses for avoiding a decision while giving an impression of progress as time and morale waste away. Unfortunately, the troubled project at hand will become more troubled as wrong decisions are avoided but no decisions are made. “Any decision is better than no decision” is true because a wrong decision will rule out an incorrect course of action.
Any decision will overcome stagnation and the inertia caused by ‘fear’ is then overcome. However, any decision maker(s) may then fear the opinions and criticism about that positive, but possibly incorrect decision.
Fear of Expressing Opinion
Analysing troubled projects is easy “after the fact‘ but why can’t, or why don’t, project managers report problems and recover a project in trouble timeously?
Unfortunately, bad news is often the bitter truth as opposed to politically correct ‘good news’ which only bolsters people’s egos or beliefs. People who fear the truth suffer from alethophobia and, realistically, should not be involved in projects.
When a project totters into trouble, a toxic environment of denial and blame can quickly develop. Any ‘voice of reason’ may well go against ‘popular opinion’ and an optimistic belief that “all’s well that ends well”. A PM may fear other people’s opinions as well as how their own opinions are received; this is allodoxaphobia.
Allodoxaphobics ‘go with the flow‘ and avoid rocking the boat while they pussyfoot around in fear of everybody else’s opinions and possibly their own shadow. Dithering does nothing to rescue a project in trouble but, as opinions are expounded and discussions ensue, a political arena is created.
Fear of [Project] Politics
Success results from the ‘7 Ps’ of Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. However, when projects become troubled some people become ‘political’ and apolitical PMs will show signs of ‘politicophobia’ – the fear of politics.
Politicophobia includes the fear of the opinionated debates, mudslinging and hidden agendas as well as paltering. Paltering and being economic with the truth can confuse many a decision maker, fuels debate, and reduces trust. Politicophobiacs will shy away from the posturing and positioning that can sideline project recovery.
The political alternative to ‘7 Ps’ could be “Prevarication, Procrastination and Pontification Produce Politics (thereby) Preventing Progress”. The sentiment and rhetoric of politics needs to be challenged if positive action is to be taken.
Projects get into trouble and many projects can, and do, fail. Projects themselves cannot suffer from fear but project people can be sore afraid of failure. They need courage to overcome a reaction of ‘fight or flight’ and make rationale decisions.
People on a troubled project who fight should do so in a positive and timely manner rather than just go through the motions. This requires personal and collective courage and belief in their convictions rather than sharing the fears of others.
Decisions need to be timely and the Paretoism of “80 per cent on time, instead of 100 per cent too late” can be so true. The adage of “any port in a storm” should remind us that a timely interim decision can be a good decision when you’re in trouble; it also gives time to make a better decision while maintaining momentum.
Most people have similar fears regarding failure, wrong decisions, believing opinions, and playing politics. Overcoming a team’s collective fears is perhaps the best way to recover a project in trouble as well as keeping it out of trouble in the first place. However, this requires trust and overcoming that most difficult human phobia of pistanthrophobia which requires the courage to trust in others, as well as yourself.
UK Chartered Engineer & Chartered Geologist with over thirty-five years’ international experience in multicultural environments on large multidisciplinary infrastructure projects including rail, metro, hydro, airports, tunnels, roads and bridges. Skills include project management, contract administration & procurement, and design & construction management skills as Client, Consultant, and Contractor.