Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 19;   May 11, 2005:

Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress

by

Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?

Chris pushed back from his desk and stared at his display. The earliest completion date was now three months later than before his latest schedule changes. Resting his chin on his left fist, he let out a deep sigh.

A traffic sign warning of trouble aheadJust then, Warren walked by, waving as he went. 'Uh-oh,' Chris thought.

Sure enough, Warren stopped, turned back, leaned into Chris's office and said, "You don't look happy."

Chris looked up. "Dropping the Bluefield requirements didn't help. Actually, it got worse."

Warren looked at his watch. "Well, if you don't figure this out by Eleven, let's all meet in my conference room."

Chris and Warren are having a familiar conversation. When we make changes that ought to speed things up, things usually slow down.

Knowing about impending negative progress can be helpful. Here's a collection of tactics and events that can indicate the potential for negative progress.

Denying negative surprises
When you deny the significance of bad news, you start losing time immediately. Review carefully all denials of the significance of surprises.
A drumbeat of bad news
When you deny the
significance of bad news,
you start losing
time immediately
Troubles often travel in herds. When things aren't going well, staying the course could be a questionable strategy. See "Flanking Maneuvers," Point Lookout for September 8, 2004.
Outdated, inadequate, or shared equipment
Using obsolete or worn out equipment, or having to schedule the use of essential equipment, costs time and creates delay. See "The Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources," Point Lookout for March 21, 2001.
Extremely tight or very lax deadlines
Reasonable deadlines encourage risk-taking, which is essential for discovering innovative solutions. Extreme pressure — or the absence of all pressure — threaten both creativity and quality. See "Make Space for Serendipity," Point Lookout for September 25, 2002, and "Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza," Point Lookout for April 23, 2003.
Fractional people
When too many projects depend on a few people with critical skills, their time becomes fragmented, and they must constantly switch between tasks. Often their productivity falls as fast as the quality of their work. See "When Is Change for a Dollar Only 82 Cents?."
Relaxing requirements to maintain schedule
In today's environment, requirements do change. But relaxing requirements solely to maintain schedule could be a warning of trouble ahead. The tactic rarely saves time, and it often has the opposite effect.
Adding staff
Adding staff always slows things down, even if your intention is to speed up.
Meetings consistently running overtime
In a well-run project, some meetings run over — but some finish early. If you always run over, look out for trouble.
Underused consensus
Consensus produces the most durable decisions. If you never use consensus, even when time does permit, some decisions could be flawed. More important, avoiding the use of consensus could be an indicator of trouble on the team. See "Decisions, Decisions: I," Point Lookout for November 17, 2004.
Closed communications
If an elite group deals with bad news, making critical decisions without participation of the team at large, and controlling the circulation of information about the bad news, then it's possible that the bad news is worse than many people believe. See "See No Evil," Point Lookout for March 30, 2005.

Most projects exhibit at least some of these traits from time to time. Track their incidence. When many are present, and when they settle into a stable pattern, you might be in for a wild ride. Spend a little extra time looking around the next turn. Go to top Top  Next issue: Irrational Self-Interest  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!

Reader Comments

Ron Thompson, Eiscon Group, Ltd. (www.eiscon.com)
One of your best yet! I have stories about all of your nine indicators (I think eight of them come from the same project). I wanted to pass along a couple.
On adding staff I was once able to head this off. I was leading a pressure project where we were tracking on time, but tight. The manager asked me when we could deliver if he gave me another person. I looked him in the eye and said two months later. He never brought it up again (and we delivered on time).
On meetings consistently running overtime I was on a project that was running extremely late, so the manager started holding daily status meetings that usually ran at least an hour. At one, he asked if anyone had ideas to get the project back on track. A co-worker (and friend of mine) quietly says from the other end of the table, "We could try getting back to work instead of sitting in this ******* meeting." The manager never did get a clue and the project ended up dying a slow death.
On closed communications Even worse, the project team invents rumors that the bad news is worse than many people believe, even if the "elite group" isn't even dealing with bad news!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.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:

Canada GeeseGeese Don't Land on Twigs
Since companies sometimes tackle projects that they have no hope of completing successfully, your project might be completely wrong for your company. How can you tell whether your project is a fit for your company?
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?
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
The damaged Apollo 13 Service Module, as seen from the command moduleOn the Risk of Undetected Issues: I
In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
stacks of gold coinsCost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options.

See also Project Management, Critical Thinking at Work and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesComing October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.
Ecotourists visit an iceberg off GreenlandAnd on November 3: Way Over Their Heads
For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 3.

Coaching services

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

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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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 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.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
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.
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!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.