Is Rising Internal Complexity a Risk to Your Ambitious Plans?
Intrinsic Motivation: A New Source 3x Performance?
Is Rising Internal Complexity a Risk to Your Ambitious Plans?
Intrinsic Motivation: A New Source 3x Performance?
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Some Leaders Only Want Good News, What About You?

This could be the most ambitious generation of leaders yet. This is evident in the number of ambitious strategic projects and initiatives aimed at delivering today's performance and tomorrow's transformation.

However, there may be a downside to all this ambition. That is the risk of hubris or overconfidence regarding success. Consequently, leaders maybe slow to talk about risk or to get real about plans and resources. The risk is surprise setbacks is magnified as a result.

  • Project Pollyanna: A culture where only positive outcomes are discussed, often silencing doubts or concerns.
  • Project Hubris: Overconfidence in project success, often leading to inadequate risk assessment and management.
  • Reality Disconnect: An unwavering belief in project success can clash with the complexities and risks of executing ambitious projects.
  • Reluctance to Discuss Risk: Many leaders and teams hesitate to talk about risk, fearing they'll appear negative or demotivated.
  • Symptoms of Hubris: Includes overconfidence, blind optimism, avoidance of difficult conversations, and hands-off leadership.
  • Hierarchical and Political Environments: Tend to nurture project hubris, as they may be low in trust.
  • Distant from Execution: Leaders may not always understand the challenges faced by those executing projects.
  • Psychological Safety: The need for an environment where risks and challenges can be openly discussed.

Project Pollyanna – Why do we need to be so positive?

Naturally, leaders are expected to be confident and ambitious regarding their projects and plans. However, too many organizations only do good news when it comes to projects and initiatives.

This is a form of Project Pollyanna where people have learned to silence their doubts and concerns and simply nod in agreement (called nodding-dog syndrome). Here is how one leader put it:

‘We only do good news! Anybody who asks too many questions or appears to be negative is likely to be sidelined'.

The result is that many project decisions are based on limited information – only positive information. Ultimately, a project is vulnerable to setbacks and surprises.

Project Hubris – Why do we need to be so confident?

Hubris is a fancy word for excessive self-confidence or pride, also for arrogance and conceit. When it comes to projects and initiatives, it results in the dangerous assumption that project success is a given.

Hubris emerges as the number one hidden risk facing strategic projects and initiatives. It shapes the lens through which the project is seen, the accuracy of project forecasts and estimates, awareness of key success factors and risks and even the very nature of the dialogue around a program or initiative.

Project hubris is a major, yet hidden project risk. Indeed, it is a ‘meta risk' in that it determines how other risks are engaged with, or even if they are seen. It means that risks are not being adequately discussed, with project plans and resourcing often falling out-of-step as a result.

Flying in the Face of Reality?

Not all projects succeed. Many will run over budget, miss deadlines fail to meet expectations.  That is simply reality. Indeed, delivering on ambitious projects is one of the most difficult and risky things that the organization does.  

An absolute and unshakable confidence in project success flies in the face of the reality of delivering ambitious projects – the inherent complexity and the myriad of risks involved. It also flies in the face of past reality and the organization's track record in terms of delivering on its ambitions.  

Traditionally, it was believed that talking about success was positive, talking about obstacles, risks, or failure was negative. However, today psychologists tell us that talking about obstacles, setbacks and impediments has an important motivational value. It also builds resilience and ensures preparedness1.  Indeed, a project’s ‘wobbly moments’ – when people are doubting the way forward – can be defining moments for a project. As one of our colleagues puts it: ‘Surely, it's not about being positive or negative but about being real’.  

Those leading projects and senior leadership stakeholders and sponsors need to be aligned in terms of the realities of a project including all the key success factors and risks (resource requirements, dependencies, trade-offs, etc.).

What are the tell-tale signs?

If leaders are thinking or saying any of the following, there is likely hubris around your projects and initiatives:  

  • The project or initiative will succeed…
  • People will make it happen…
  • We have all the resources and skills required (this is closely related to the assumption of unlimited bandwidth)…
  • It is a priority, so it will happen…
  • There can be no excuses…
  • The organization is fully committed to this.

 Pause for a moment to reflect on how many of the above might apply to key projects in your organization.

Project Hubris stems from a mixture of factors such as:  

  • Overconfidence and blind optimism
  • A “see no evil, hear no evil” outlook
  • Avoidance of difficult conversations
  • A failure to discuss or manage risks
  • A hands-off approach by senior leadership to strategic projects.

This dangerous cocktail of traits blinds leaders and stakeholders to the true complexities and challenges inherent in ambitious projects. The result is misplaced certainty. ‘Not me!' you might say. Be warned, however, we are all tempted towards rose-tinted glasses.

The risk of hubris or project Pollyanna tends to be greatest in hierarchical environments that are high in politics, but low in trust. Hubris struggles to survive in safe environments where there is ‘no blaming and no hiding’.  

Why can't we Talk About Risk?  

Our research points to a general reluctance among project leaders and teams to talk about risk with senior internal stakeholders. Feeding stakeholders good news and shielding them from any potentially bad or upsetting news becomes a priority.  

One factor is a concern that, by talking about risks, people will come across as being negative, under-motivated or otherwise lacking in what is required for success. The fact that many conversations about risk are related to resources is another factor. Quite simply, leaders would rather not hear ‘no – there are no more resources’, yet again.  

Moreover, for many projects there is ‘an elephant in the room’ some unspoken issue that may be politically charged (e.g. a dependency on another function). Engaging in these conversations if often the most fruitful. As one of our colleagues puts it: ‘The risks that you really need to worry about are the risks that nobody is prepared to talk about’.

A failure to get real about key Success Factors and risks, is typically most keenly felt in the allocation of resources. Expecting projects to deliver against the goals set, despite cuts to resources, is another form of project hubris.  

What is at the Root of the Problem?  

All too often, leaders don’t have sufficient information about key projects and initiatives. Moreover, the information they have is unusually positive. This could be a blissful ignorance or willful (self-serving) blindness.  

For some leaders, it maybe a self-defense or protective mechanism. Just like an outwardly very positive person might secretly harvest doubts and insecurities. For others, it may be that they just are too busy or stressed to entertain problems.  

Too many senior leaders are still reading from the Press Release or aspirational project mission statement when it comes to critical projects and initiatives. Meanwhile, reality has moved on.  

A ‘gung-ho’ mentality and tendency to hype up projects or initiatives may be essential to securing funded. Indeed, it is those most-hyped projects that can result in a false positive or defensiveness.  

There has been a lot of talk about psychological safety and the requirement for leaders to create an environment where people can speak up. What is often overlooked however is that it may not be safe for the leader either. For them to be seen to allow dissension in the ranks or to allow the appearance of negativity may not be an option.  

One might expect hubris or Pollyanna to be born out of complacency but there's very little evidence of this within any of the leaders that we talked to. Indeed, leaders will often be heard say that ‘failure is not an option’ – promises have been made to shareholders and investors and they must be delivered upon. Certainly, failure is not the desired outcome, but it is an ever-present danger. Keeping failure ‘on the table’ keeps people sharp and attuned to risk.  

There may also be a structural element to project hubris or Pollyanna. Traditionally, within large organizations, those who set the strategy and those who executed on were very different groups.  

Leaders often struggle to see that the success of their strategy and the realization of their vision rests on the success of key strategic projects and initiatives.  

When the strategy or vision was created, senior leaders walked away and left execution to those lower down. Worryingly, this outmoded aspect of strategy is still in evidence within many organizations. A further complicating factor is the fact that many of the most important strategic initiatives are cross-functional in nature and may be happening outside the traditional organization structure and its departmental lines. In these situations, there may be confusion at a C-suite level about who really owns the project.

People Pollyanna – Is it Safe to Assume that People Will Make it Happen?  

Another assumption, borne out of hubris, is worth calling out – it is that ‘People will make it happen no matter what’. This is particularly dangerous.  It assumes that those running the project will ‘put out all the stops’ to deliver key projects regardless of the personal cost, how fair or realistic the project goals are or the amount of other work that must be done.

  • It doesn’t matter how many projects they are
  • It doesn’t matter whether they make sense or are well thought-through
  • It doesn’t matter whether projects are adequately resourced or not
  • It does not matter whether the goals are realistic – whether it is a moon shot or not, etc.

 When leaders assume that people will go all out to deliver on their ambitious projects, they are generally proven to be right. That is until they aren't! Meanwhile, too much blind faith is placed in running projects – with many senior leaders adopting a peculiarly hands-off role. The ‘if it's going to be it is up to me’ mantra of personal responsibility becomes ‘if it's going to be it's up to them’.  

Why so distant?  

Those working on ‘Pollyanna projects’ feel that they can’t tell those at the top about the problems or challenges being faced. As a result, they may feel isolated, left to wrestle with the challenges alone. They may even feel as if they are being ‘hung out to dry’. Their ability to cope with the pressure can be an important project risk.  

Project leaders often complain about senior leaders being distant. ‘It feels like they want to remain at ’7000 feet’ said one project lead, adding ‘every now again they ask for a slide deck but getting into the detail is something that they are clearly reluctant to do’.

Reflections for Leaders

To combat Project Hubris, organizations must foster humility, curiosity, and openness.   Embracing vulnerability, leaders should encourage genuine conversations about potential obstacles and challenges.    

Leaders must welcome skeptics and critics, and proactively address risks rather than avoiding them.  

Aligning the expectations of internal stakeholders with the realities of execution is essential.  

It is important that senior leaders are not seen as distant, being more curious about the reality of their projects and the needs of those running them.    

Take a moment to reflect on the issues raised here by answering on these questions:

  • Could you or some of your stakeholders be taking success for granted?
  • Are your people freely talking about obstacles and risks?
  • Have all important internal stakeholders been involved in conversations regarding risk?
  • Could project leaders feel that you are too distant?
  • Could you have a rosy view of how the project is really performing?
  • How well have you engaged project cynics and skeptics?
  • Do you have the full unvarnished truth regarding the project?
…a dangerous assumption that people will make it happen no matter what!  

SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:

  1. See for example ‘Re-thinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen, Current Books, 2015. []

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