Organisations often find it difficult to shelve projects that aren't viable. The initial enthusiasm that keeps the interest of the project team members doesn't allow them to kill the project, thereby crippling organisational success. Is it loyalty or obsession?
Faith and belief
Well, whatever the reason, it is definitely not because of poor management or bossy lethargy! According to Isabelle Royer, University of Paris, it is the undaunting faith and belief in the likely success of the project.
Belief and faith...at the cost of the organisation? A million dollar question! Logically speaking, the answer would be negative. So, does reason take over blind faith?
True, and quite contrarily, beliefs could be collective! A collective belief is a strong conviction based on the affective component of the mind not on the cognitive. Implying thereby that feelings, rather than evidence that a project can actually succeed, support collective beliefs. The belief originates basically from a project manager who champions the cause of defending the project, and it percolates throughout the organisation.
A collective belief system could lead an otherwise rational organisation into an irrational one. While the strongly held conviction peps up employees' enthusiasm, it obviously has a darker side to it. This overshadows the negative feedback received from vendors and customers. Negative feedback could, in the long run, be disastrous to the organisation.
Essilor, the world's largest maker of corrective lenses for eyeglasses, abandoned its innovative product after shelling out millions of dollars in initial investment. The initial demand for the new lens that Essilor had created was lukewarm. However, managers ruled out the consequences of the problem as the 'soon-to-be-solved' technical problem, unmindful that the market was unaware of the problem.
Collective belief of the managers at Essilor diluted the normal organisation procedures and safeguards. Managers at Essilor resorted to a go-error, quite an unviable option in times of calamity. Essilor substituted the two-year durability tests with that of the shorter, less reliable ones of just six months to adhere to the aggressive development schedule. Though the lens company had clear procedures for testing the lens during development these were never followed. The other tests produced negative results and were ignored. As one Essilor manager averred: "The decision to launch was implicit. It was just a question of when".
Lafarge, the largest producer of building materials, had plans to build a plant for an industrial additive. The test results for the product were unfavourable and the decision to build the plant premature. However, the manager anticipated success in carrying forward the project. He did so only to realise that his faith in the project took his company into the doldrums.
Cost of conviction
When the belief in a task is strong, the situation is the gravest. Collective belief inhibits project members from identifying problems. Even though acknowledged, those problems cannot be identified as symptoms of failure. Collective belief overshadows regular organisational policies in safeguarding the interests of the organisation.
A common reason for collective belief is the inherent initial enthusiasm that could lead to unrealistic goal setting. Widespread enthusiasm might also lead to the formation of a cognitively diverse project team. Fulfilling team goals therefore becomes hard. Many a time, the decision makers' faith in the project results in lack of clear decision criteria. Unclear decisions lead to ambiguous information, in turn resulting in a stronger belief in the project's success.
Ideally, two types of safeguards could be built before pushing forward a project. These, along with the dynamic role of the project champions and the exit champions, will help kill the unviable project.
Project teams have members who share the initial enthusiasm. Since the members volunteer to work, they could be considered self-selected teams. The expertise of the team members helps them develop the intelligence system to anticipate others' moves. However, warning signals are invariably ignored owing to the deep-rooted belief in the success of the project. Therefore, it would be ideal to include dissenters of the project along with a group of believers in forming a project team.
Avoiding the go-error requires the companies to impose strict control procedures to evaluate the project viability in the initial stages. Essilor and Lafarge have effective internal controls called "stage gates" that act as entry barriers to impracticable projects.
Killers aboard- the exit champions
Championing the cause of killing doomed projects are the "Exit Champions". They stop the failing projects from being carried further. They look into lenient procedures and shatter the blind faith and belief of the project members in the interest of the organisation. Exit champions initialise the cause of defending the exit from an unviable project. They convince the believers that it is better to shelve a dead project. The process however involves a thorough evaluation.
The first and foremost job of any exit champion is to rectify the collective belief of the team members.
Project champions vs. exit champions?
Unlike a project champion who sustains the collective belief, an exit champion takes the initiative to support the exit from a doomed project. While project champions are believers, exit champions are dissenters. Believers credit the dissenters with lack of competence. Exit champions remove the ambiguity in which the project champions work, in a foolproof manner. The former restores procedures that the latter overrides.
However, both have the unassuming quality to take up unassigned critical roles and have the determination to overcome obstacles. Therefore, a blend of both is essential in a project team to back up the initial enthusiasm with logic and reason.
Out of the maze
To avoid collective belief from strengthening its roots, it would do well if the top management formed the project team with a diverse section of employees who are sceptical about the potential problems. Exit champions need to be viewed as 'supporters of the organisation ' and 'not as dissenters of the project '. Differentiating exit champions from the naysayers, who always voice negative opinions is like rewarding them for their credibility. Encouraging sceptics in a team would lead to constructive conflict, which helps in better evaluations and decisions. And not to forget, challenges to the popular project must be rewarded.
Therefore, matching personal expectations with those of the organisation to accumulate success must be the prime objective of the team members. Employees must however practice the principle that is ritualistically followed by an exit champion of a company: " When I work, I need to believe in what I do. I don't want to waste time on something that is worthless."