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

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Outdated, inadequate, or shared equipment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

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Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeThe Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources
Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
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Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. In this first part of our survey of teamwork myths, we examine two myths about forming teams.
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Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
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Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion of control" — might provide explanations.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Office equipment — or is it office toys?Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressAnd on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.

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