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? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.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:

Finger PuzzlesFinger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
Damage to the Interstate 10 Twin Bridge across Lake PontchartrainManaging Risk Revision
Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, AlaskaProject Improvisation as Group Process
When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
Erecting a floating bridge in Korea (1952)When Change Is Hard: II
When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance." But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
The Bay of Pigs, CubaSeven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!