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Project Safety: 4 Factors that Prevent Nasty Surprises

There are lots of reasons why projects flounder or fail. Many however could have been prevented, if only somebody had spoken up. Perhaps somebody did speak up but was not listened too. As a result, projects are left vulnerable to surprise setbacks.

There is much talk about creating ‘safe’ workplace environments where people say what they are thinking and can otherwise be themselves. This ‘Psychological Safety’ is closely linked to the broader concept of ‘Project Safety’, which also includes Respectful Challenge, Collective Smarts and Sufficient Variety. Combined these factors can prevent a project skidding or crashing out of control – you can think of it as the trackside crash barriers for your project.

Psychological safety

In project meetings and workshops, a few people typically do most of the talking, with many others remaining silent. They nod in agreement with what is being discussed or decided, but then go away and either do nothing or the opposite to what was agreed. If only people could or would say what they were really thinking.  Well, there is a clear reason why they don’t – it is neither safe nor rewarding to do so.  

Much has been written about the importance of psychological safety, with organizations such as Google touting it as the number one ingredient of team performance/success1. However, Psychological Safety cannot be assumed to exist in most workplaces.

Without safety, things are likely to be left unsaid – that means risks or obstacles will remain hidden, competing agendas will not be surfaced and innovative ideas may be lost.  A cosy consensus can emerge, with group think and conformity leaving the project in a ‘glass bubble’ and vulnerable to shocks and surprises.

Too often leaders mistake silence for agreement. To avoid making this error they need to talk less and enquire more, attend to ‘what is not being said’ and look to ‘who has not yet spoken’. The leader goes last – holding back on offering their views till others have been heard.

Respectful Challenge 

Safety is essential, but a cozy consensus can be very dangerous. The ability of a project team to dialog contentious topics, to move beyond what is comfortable and ‘safe’ is key to project success.

If the conversation is always polite, then things are likely to go unsaid. That means risks will remain hidden, concerns unspoken and alarms silenced.

The dynamics that drive performance and innovation can be seen to depend on a balance between psychological safety and respectful challenge.  This can be observed from the interactions of a team during a project meeting. For example:

  • Does everybody contribute to the conversation?
  • Are divergent views welcomed?
  • Are people able to disagree and still get along?
  • How effectively does the team dialog contentious topics?
  • Is there a cozy consensus or are people prepared to go against the crowd?

People must be able to listen to different perspectives and encourages discordant views.  All this needs to happen in an environment where there is complete respect.  

The leader as coach plays an important role in balancing psychological safety and respectful challenge. That means encouraging people to ‘call it’ if they don’t agree with what is being said, to speak up and be heard, to go against conventional thinking/the consensus, etc.

Respectful challenge means courageously moving beyond the status quo, the comfortable and familiar. It happens where people push themselves outside their comfort zone, and where growth and learning are espoused virtues within the team. 

There has been much talk in recent years about courageous conversations and even radical candour2. However, our research suggests that respectful challenge can be most powerful when it is subtle. It is not just about ‘piling on the pressure’ or ‘turning up the heat’. It is often silent and patient – with pauses being an effective means of encouraging people to share more or reflect more deeply.  For example:

  • If a leader waits even just 3-5 seconds (think of it as a strategic pause) after somebody finishes talking before saying anything or moving on, it is surprising how people will open up further.
  • Although, time may be running out, if the leader ask another person (someone who has remained silent) to share their thoughts then the risk of things going unsaid is progressively diminished.

Collective Smarts

If only the IQ of a team was the sum of its members, then the best decisions would be collective ones. Unfortunately, however, it is not. While it is frequently said that ‘many heads are better than one’, the reality is that groups can actually magnify bias and error in the analysis of information and making of decisions3.

‘The numbing and dumbing down that happen when we try to think together are astounding.’ according to research by Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur4. In particular, social conformity and group think are powerful influences even on groups of experts5. While, pervasive these influences are subtle and therefore often go unnoticed.

Much has been written about the vagrancies of human decision-making, including best-selling books by Nobel Prize Winning economists. The good news is that, because bias happens in such predictable ways, the effects can be managed, perhaps even prevented. Here are some behaviours that can improve collective team smarts6:

(a) Trading Certainty for Curiosity


‘What is the plan? What should we do?’ That was the question asked of the newly appointed manager by her team. In a demonstration of unshakeable confidence she smiled and answered ‘I don’t know – I would like to learn from all of you – what do you think this team should do?’ In only a few words, the leader had demonstrated an absence of ego, as well as a determination to listen and to learn – behaviours that she wished to inspire within the team.

Once it was believed that senior executives should have all the answers and that showing anything less than complete confidence was a sign of weakness. As a result managers were reluctant to say ‘I don’t know’ or to admit they might be wrong. However, times have changed and the willingness to show doubt or vulnerability is seen as a sign of authentic leadership7.

Leading in a complex and fast-changing world means trading certainty for curiosity, including:

  • Slowing down before rushing to a decision
  • Asking more questions
  • Gathering more information
  • Exploring more options
  • Engaging with more points of view
  • Running more experiments
  • Questioning old attitudes and assumptions
  • Being comfortable with not having all the answers.

When leaders put certainty ahead of curiosity, their projects face the twin dangers of hidden complexity and misplaced certainty – what we call ‘Project Double Jeopardy’. 

(b) Intellectual humility

The stereotypical expert is often seen to be confident, even arrogant in their opinions. However, experts are equally prone to bias or error and in particular to confirmation bias as the rest of the population. The problem is that when you have a group of experts, opinions and egos make teamwork difficult8.

Do you feel the pressure to always have the answer? It is an unfair burden of pressure on any manager to expect them to have all the answers or to always be right. In complex situations multiple perspectives are required, so too more information and analysis.

Leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room. Indeed, it has often been said: ‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room’9. Even if the person did have all the answers they should consider holding back in order to engage others in co-creating the solution. This is a key element of creating ownership and buy-in.

The solutions to many of today’s complex problems are as much adaptive, as they are technical. That is to say that they require changing attitudes and behaviors, and not just some new technology, or skill. Thus, the expert-leader must increasingly adopt the role of coach or facilitator in helping others not just to find the solution, but to define the problem.

‘If I am wise it is only because I know how much I do not know’ said Socrates. Thus, there is a long tradition of humility being associated with wisdom, or intelligence. It is far from easy, however. Much of public discourse shows that we hold tightly to many of our views and beliefs, and get defensive once they are threatened.

When there is intellectual humility you will hear people saying such things as:

  • Interesting, can you tell me more…
  • This is complex…
  • I am not sure!
  • I could be wrong…
  • Are there other ways of looking at this?
  • Is there something that I/we cannot see?

Another aspect of intellectual humility is avoiding dogmatic answers. That means swapping definitives such as ‘is’, ‘must’, ‘will’ for words such as ‘perhaps’, ‘could’, ‘may’, etc.

(c) Considering More Options & Scenarios

Few people would think of close-mindedness as being a virtue.  Yet we may not be as open-minded as we think. Attitudes and beliefs are habits of the mind – well-worn neural pathways that reduce our need to think.  Being open-minded means we must be open to re-think our old assumptions, attitudes and beliefs.  As these are often subconscious that is not easy. It requires:

  • Comfort with ambiguity/not having all the answers
  • Seeking alternative perspectives
  • Probing underlying assumptions
  • Challenging the old way of thinking
  • Exploring more alternatives
  • Envisioning a broader range of scenarios

All great ideas challenge the orthodoxy in some way.  Those who can envision the products and markets of tomorrow are not bound by the old ways of thinking, such as ‘that is not how we do it’, or ‘that is not how it works’.

It is often said: ‘To the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities… to the expert’s there are few’. Keeping an open mind as an expert can be a real challenge. In particular, experts in one discipline may struggle to engage perspectives from other domains. Yet, no one discipline has all the answers. The challenge is to stay open to alternative points of view, even where they conflict with your own/that of your group. 

It means holding two or more conflicting ideas in your head at one time. So, instead of exploring two options, why not explore a third or a fourth.  Why not create a third option by combining to the best elements of the other options.

When openness is present you will hear people saying such things as:I am not sure… …what do you think?  Have we heard from everybody?  I would like to wait till everybody has had a chance to offer their perspective before commenting.  What if we turned this on its head…  Are there any other ways of looking at this?  What other solutions might there be?  What would our customers/competitor’s say / approach this?  What underlying assumptions are we making? 

(d) Effective Team Dialog

One of the ways of defining a complex project is that it cannot be solved by one or a few people working in isolation, but requires a much broader engagement, bringing multiple perspectives together to define and to solve the problem.  The essential process here is that of dialog.

Dialog is the process of thinking together. In nature, it is different to the back and forth of a typical discussion – where one person offers their opinion and another responds in turn. A dialog is often described as a flowing conversation where people step into the conversation at one place and emerge somewhere else – with their thoughts and perspectives having shifted in the process. It is a process of generating buy-in and engagement.

You maybe thinking: Teams are having conversations all the time – how could that be a test of a team’s smarts? Well, the test is the ability to have strategic conversations – those importance conversations that tend not to happen in the busyness of the day to day. That includes conversations on complex, sensitive or difficult topics. Framing these conversations is important, so too is creating a time and a space where people can think.

A key factor in the collective smarts of a group is the extent of conversational turn taking – that is the extent to which people contribute to the conversation. A sure sign of poor team smarts is where one or a few people do all the talking. After all there is no point in having clever people if they remain silent.

(e) Team Reflexivity

Few teams start out as being really smart.  Moreover, the best teams have made as many mistakes and face as many set-backs as any other team.  The big difference is their eagerness to learn from them.  Peak performing teams have a habit of ‘team reflexivity’10, put simply; they reflect on their good and bad decisions, their successes and failures, as follows:

  • Team members discuss performance in an open and non-defensive manner, including; what is working and what needs to be improved.
  • People don’t need to cover their mistakes11.  There is a culture of no blaming and no hiding.
  • The team seeks input to it plans and thinking as well as feedback on its performance from its various stakeholders, as well as external sources.    
  • The team operates in iterative plan – do – review cycles, learning lessons from set-backs, seeking opportunities for improvement and taking corrective action where required.

Use the above checklist to test your team’s reflexivity.

For teams that develop the habit of reflecting on performance, every team meeting, project update and strategy session represents an opportunity for learning and improvement.  At its simplest this means ending every project meeting by asking two simple questions; What did we do well?  What might we leave behind (that didn’t work so well)?

Sufficient Variety

It has been said that: ‘It is not about the smartest person in the room, the smartest person is the room’12. But how smart the room is depends on how diverse it is.       

Complex projects demand a higher level of diversity within a project team. That includes people from different functions, skill sets, backgrounds, personalities and outlooks13. But such diverse teams need to be able to balance psychological safety with respectful challenge.    

There is a ‘peas in a pod’ notion of the perfect project team.  However, if everyone ‘fits right in’ then performance and innovation may suffer. When fitting in becomes a priority, groupthink and conformity often results.

Balancing tension and cohesion can be a challenge for many project teams.  The tendency for managers is to hire people who are like themselves – people with whom they have much in common and can therefore easily get along.  However, this can be a mistake.  Teams need an element of tension if they are to realize peak performance. They must be able to disagree and still get along.

Your Project’s Safety

Take a moment to reflect on the level of project safety around your project or initiative.  

A. How would you rate your project and team on the 4 parts of project safety:

  1. Psychology Safety: Is it safe for people to say what they are really thinking? Or do a few people do all the talking?
  2. Respectful Challenge: Are divergent views welcome? Can people disagree & still get along?
  3. Collective Smarts: What is the risk of groupthink or over-confidence? Has the group a high collective IQ?
  4. Sufficient variety: Has your team a sufficient variety of backgrounds, skill sets, personalities & outlook?

B. How much safety does your project need? 

How much safety a project needs depends on the level of risk. Specifically, the more complex or ‘business unusual’ a project or initiative is, the more important project safety becomes.

The opposite of safety is jeopardy and the twin dangers of hidden complexity and misplaced certainty. Assess your project for these twin dangers by clicking here.

C. What could you do to boost safety in any of the 4 areas?

While the project leader or sponsor plays a particularly important role, each member of the project team has a part to play in bringing safety, challenge, smarts and variety to the project. For example, each person can demonstrate greater curiosity and open-mindedness, respect for other peoples perspectives and so on.

Project safety is one of the variables measured in detail by Pitstop Analytics™. 

  1. see Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Wiley 2018 []
  2. see Kim Scott, Radical Candor,  St. Martin’s Press 2019 or Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al, ‘Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High’, McGraw-Hill Education, 2011. []
  3. How can a team of committed managers with IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?  asks Peter M. Senge, ’The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization,’ Doubleday; Revised and Updated edition, 2006. []
  4. Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur, ‘Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently’, Spiegel & Grau, 2015. []
  5. Groupthink can be defined as ‘the deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures’ Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement, redacted version printed in Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1988, American Management Association. []
  6. Many of these topics are explored in David Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionize your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions, Hodder & Stoughton, 7 Mar. 2019 []
  7. ‘Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox…‘ Tony Schwartz quoted by Tim Richardson in his book: ‘The Responsible Leader: Developing a Culture of Responsibility in an Uncertain World’, Kogan Page, 2015. []
  8. This topic is explored in some detail in Section 5 of ‘Teams Don’t Work’ by Ray Collis and John O Gorman, ASG Press, 2019 []
  9. This idea has many origins – see for example https://www.executiveforum.com/never-be-the-smartest/ []
  10. The ability of a team to reflect on its performance (‘team reflexivity’) emerges as key to team success. See for example Michael A. West, ‘Effective Teamwork: Practical Lessons from Organizational Research’, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. []
  11. As Kegan and Lahey put it ‘…most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding.  Source: Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey, ‘An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization’, Harvard Business Review Press, 2016. []
  12. Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Natalie Painchaud et al., Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organization, HBR Press, 2020. []
  13. Delve deeper into this topic with David Komlos & David Benjamin, Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast”, Nicholas Brealey International 2019. []

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