Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 28;   July 14, 2021:

Time to Go to Plan B


We had a plan, and it was a good one. Plan A actually seemed to work for a while, but then troubles began. And now things look very bleak. We have a Plan B, but people don't want to go to it. Why not?
Guardrails in a track bed as a rail line crosses a bridge

Guardrails in a track bed as a rail line crosses a bridge. The guardrails are the inner pair of rails. The two rails immediately outside the inner pair are the running rails. Guardrails (also known as check rails) function to keep the wheels of derailed cars from straying too far from their proper locations. This is a useful risk mitigation function in high-risk geometries such as curves. It's also advantageous even if the probability of risk events is low, as in this straight section of track. It's a worthwhile measure when the consequences of risk events are extremely costly, as in this case. A derailment on a railway bridge or in steep terrain can result in rail vehicles falling to the earth below, which can cause them to pull other vehicles with them. The running rails are "Plan A" for getting across the bridge. The guardrails are "Plan B."

We continue the exploration we began last time, when we considered why some groups persist with a plan that's clearly falling short of initial expectations. Last week's post explored the case in which there is no "Plan B." That discussion left open the question of why people are reluctant to adopt a Plan B when Plan B is well developed, and Plan A is clearly failing. That's the question for this time. Here are three scenarios that apply to that situation. Clearly there are many more.

Workplace perfectionism
Outside the organizational setting, the term perfectionism refers to excessive concern with achieving an unattainable goal, combined with unremittingly critical self-evaluation for failing to attain that unattainable goal. Certainly this pattern is observable in the workplace. But a variety of perfectionism that causes even more trouble in the workplace is probably a bit more common — call it workplace perfectionism.
One factor that distinguishes workplace perfectionism is the attainability of the goal. Workplace perfectionists usually strive toward attainable goals, while personal perfectionists usually strive toward unattainable goals. A second distinguishing factor is how success is determined. In personal perfectionism, the perfectionist determines success, and the determination is almost certainly failure. In workplace perfectionism, persons other than the perfectionist — supervisors or rivals — usually determine whether the effort was a success. Since the goal of the workplace perfectionist is often attainable, success is not uncommon.
Nevertheless, workplace perfectionism can be damaging to the enterprise, because the benefit of having achieved the goal doesn't justify the cost. For example, the goal achieved might have been more costly than another goal that would have served enterprise needs just as well, or even better. But the workplace perfectionist can have a personal agenda that makes the effort seem worthwhile to the perfectionist. For example, in clinging to Plan A, the perfectionist might be trying to avoid the embarrassing or career-damaging consequences of having Plan A recognized as a failure. If that is the perfectionist's agenda, he or she might be exhibiting a behavior that Swider, et al., call "failure-avoiding perfectionism" in the workplace context [Swider 2018].
For a different take on workplace perfectionism, see "The Weaver's Pathway," Point Lookout for May 7, 2003.
Personal Plan Bs
Some advocates of persisting with a failing Plan A have made another kind of rational calculation based on self-interest. They have personal Plan Bs. An example of a personal Plan B is securing employment elsewhere in the enterprise, or in other organizations. Let me call people with personal Plan Bs PPBs.
Workplace perfectionists usually strive
toward attainable goals, while
personal perfectionists usually
strive toward unattainable goals
If Plan A ultimately succeeds, then everyone, including the PPBs, will enjoy a successful outcome. If Plan A fails, the PPBs will have what they regard as acceptable outcomes based on their personal Plan Bs. Others might not be so fortunate, but the PPBs are willing to accept that others might suffer as the result of Plan A's failure.
Lose-lose decisions
Some advocates of persisting with a failing Plan A believe that Plan A is failing, but fear the consequences of acknowledging the failure. They're trying to comply with what they see as the approved organizational position vis-à-vis Plan A. Some might even be willing to (privately) declare Plan A a failure already. But they sense that declaring Plan A to be a failure would have very serious negative consequences for themselves personally. Despite their private views, these individuals are willing to comply with the organizationally acceptable position that Plan A is still the current plan. Let me call one of these people Charles ("C" for Compliant).
Charles is concerned about someone whom he regards as having considerable power over him (call her Pam for Powerful). Charles believes, with evidence, that Pam is dedicated to the success of Plan A. Charles also believes, again with evidence, that expressing his true beliefs about Plan A would displease Pam. He believes that if he spoke his mind, Pam would take steps to discredit Charles or otherwise harm his career. He believes that Pam would not be reluctant to kill the messenger.
And so, Charles confronts a lose-lose decision. He can keep mum about Plan A, and ride with its failure, or he can express his view that Plan A has failed, and endure the wrath of Pam. Both options lead to trouble. In the end, Charles continues to support the status quo (Plan A) as many people would.
One might ask, "If Plan A is failing so obviously, and Charles can see it, why doesn't Pam see it?" Naturally, there can be many possible explanations. Two examples: Pam doesn't see it because she's a workplace perfectionist; or Pam does see it, but she has a personal Plan B.

One problem probably remains for any team that has a Plan B that hasn't yet been invoked. Most Plan Bs I've seen had never been subjected to the close scrutiny that was applied to Plan A. And most Plan Bs have sat on the shelf, ignored, since the day Plan A was officially declared active. The consequence of these two conditions is that Plan B might not be complete. And it's probably outdated. Before it's invoked, and before anyone starts advocating for a switch to Plan B, it's probably worth taking a look at Plan B to see how real it actually is. Go to top Top  Next issue: Be Choosier About Job Offers: I  Next Issue

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[Swider 2018]
Brian Swider, Dana Harari, Amy P. Breidenthal, and Laurens Bujold Steed. "The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism, According to Research," Harvard Business Review, December 27, 2018. Available here. Retrieved 28 June 2021. Back

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