Wishful Thinking and Seeing is damaging. It causes project delays, rework and failures, and is a source of risk for every project delivery organisation. 5 min read.
Management by Wishful Thinking
When projects go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, it’s easy to identify wishful thinking. We assume things will work out when there is no good reason to substantiate that they will.
Wishful thinking is a problem for all project types and dooms projects to inevitable challenges and failures. Some examples of wishful thinking include,
- Being asked to meet an important deadline with a newly formed and under-resourced team without doing any planning.
- Being asked to double project throughput with no change in organisation design else resourcing.
- Being asked to shave 3-months off your schedule that has a planned duration of 9-months.
Wishful thinking resolves the conflict between belief and desire, and results in project decision-making that is pleasing to imagine rather than making decisions rooted in evidence, rationality or reality.
“We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality”. Ayn Rand
Traps of Wishful Seeing
A more sinister form of wishful thinking is wishful seeing, which involves people seeing the world as they want to see it, which is used to categorise ambiguous information to represent their project environment in ways that align with their desires.
Wishful seeing has profound implications not only for projects but more importantly for project delivery organisations. In response to complex and multifaceted project challenges, a new unsubstantiated way of working is proposed because by its design it is easy to understand, quick to implement and creates an impression of progress.
This new way of working is generally straightforward, prescriptive, falsely encouraging, easy to cut and paste, novel not radical and will have gained credibility by the status and prestige of its proponents or followers, rather than through empirical evidence.
These very characteristics that make new ways of working rise in appeal also contribute to their fall. Their simplicity, presumed generality, and promise of results that often don’t materialise guarantee they will ultimately fall short of management expectations and be abandoned.
If the Solution Looks Too Simple, It Probably Is
All project initiatives are characterised by risk and uncertainty to some extent. It is, however, fair to say that the novelty of making project delivery organisation changes exhibits more risk and uncertainty than that associated with most projects.
In reference to HBR’s ‘Spotting Management Fads’, Miller and Hartwick suggest that when evaluating a new approach, it’s essential to consider,
- Does the method have a track record for performance and measurable outcomes in similar companies facing similar challenges?
- Does it address problems or opportunities that are of high priority?
- Are the changes it would require within our company’s capabilities and resources?
If the answer to these questions is yes, it suggests that the new proposed way of working is likely to succeed and is therefore worth the significant investment over time.
Projects and management of project delivery organisations are complex. Not only are the methods, tools, and techniques complicated, but it takes real skill to motivate others to do work in a way that is both timely, cost-effective and of high quality. In addition to this, effective stakeholder management is needed to ensure management support to help achieve successful outcomes.
Similar to a new project, new ways of working demand real organisation change involving high levels of investment over a long period of time. The current 1-hour PowerPoint trend of ‘just do it’ or ‘just make it happen’ else ‘we will figure it out over time’ overlooks the pestle challenges faced by project professionals and instead results in another management fad that will fizzle out in 3-months’ time.
To avoid falling into the cyclical trap of wishful thinking and seeing ensure,
- There is a focus on the process and not the outcome.
- Confirm what is wanted is feasible.
- Be resilient.
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