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Project Recovery Depends on People: Encourage Them!

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin is editor-in-chief for PM Solutions Research, and the author, co-author and editor of over twenty books on project management, including the 2007 PMI Literature Award winner, The AMA Handbook of Project Management, Second Edition.

Last week, a client’s request for recent insights into the causes of project failure (the kind of thing we do when we are customizing courses)  led me down the rabbit hole of the Internet, looking at studies and papers about project outcomes, some of which were as recent as 2015 while others, from the 1970s, are still being referenced in today’s project management literature.

The main AHA! came when I realized that most researchers and writers today have reframed their discussions away from “project failure” and towards “project success.” This is very encouraging, and not only because it helps the whole project management discipline regard these statistics as more than “a bundle of sticks my managers gather to beat me with,” as someone remarked in a presentation on metrics I attended years ago.

It’s also encouraging because … well, because it encourages teams when we aspire to project success, rather than merely fearing project failure.

Maybe because I am a wordsmith, I’ve been fascinated for years with the way that the language we use shapes our thinking. At PMI’s Publishing Division in 1998, as well as since then at PM Solutions, and in PM conference presentations, I’ve promoted the concept of Appreciative Inquiry as a team-based technique for positive action. AI theory basically says that when you focus on problems, you are focusing on what’s broken, and the next question is “who broke it?” and the blame game, along with self-shielding, ensues. Even if you solve the problem, you’ve damaged the team.  It took nearly 20 years, but now I read about AI in project management everywhere, which makes me happy.

Even better, now neuroscience has caught up with theory (and my intuition). Turns out that the way you think and talk about things actually does affect your ability to deal with them, and thus alters the possible outcomes. Scientific American’s recent article on this is a must-read.

I don’t know if this is why the Standish Group has taken to listing “Project Success Factors” rather than “Project Failure Factors,” but I think the shift may be subtly affecting rates of success and failure. People do projects … using their brains, about which we keep learning amazing things. Put people first and communicate with them positively. Maybe that is why our Project Recovery research found that all you have to do is form an informal process for recovering troubled projects, and your recovery rates start mounting. The idea that we have the ability to change things ... changes things.

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