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

Time to Go to Plan B

by

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

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

[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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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 Workplace Politics:

An early automotive assembly line trialThe End-to-End Cost of Meetings: III
Many complain about attending meetings. Certainly meetings can be maddening affairs, and they also cost way more than most of us appreciate. Understanding how much we spend on meetings might help us get control of them. Here's Part III of a survey of some less-appreciated costs.
A clockThe Artful Shirker
Most people who shirk work are fairly obvious about it, but some are so artful that the people around them don't realize what's happening. Here are a few of the more sophisticated shirking techniques.
Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Suppressing Dissent: II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.
A collaborative discussionAllocating Airtime: II
Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?
Three gulls excluding a fourthAn Introduction to Workplace Ostracism
We say that a person has been ostracized from a group when that person is ignored by the members of that group or excluded from participating in that group's activities, and when we might otherwise expect that person to be a member. Workplace ostracism can have expensive consequences for the enterprise.

See also Workplace Politics and Devious Political Tactics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Handling Q&A after a presentation, a situation in which formulaic utterances occur with elevated frequencyComing September 22: Formulaic Utterances: I
With all due respect is an example of a category of linguistic forms known as formulaic utterances. They differ across languages and cultures, but I speculate that their functions are near universal. In the workplace, using them can be constructive — or not. Available here and by RSS on September 22.
A collection of identical boltsAnd on September 29: Formulaic Utterances: II
Formulaic utterances are things we say that follow a pre-formed template. They're familiar to all, and have standard uses. "For example" is an example. In the workplace, some of them can be useful for establishing or maintaining dominance and credibility. Available here and by RSS on September 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
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.