I have the good fortune to live with someone that is incredibly optimistic. Everyday is a bright, sunshiny day. She tends to see the good in people and situations. I think this is an admirable quality, though at times I view it as a little naive. I will admit that I am not quite the optimist that this lovely lady is.There have been times when I refer to her as “Pollyanna”. Pollyanna is a best-selling novel by Eleanor H. Porter that is now considered a classic of children’s literature, with the title character’s name becoming a popular term for someone with an optimistic outlook.
I have read books over the years that focus on a positive attitude. For example, “As A Man Thinketh” by James Allen. There are sayings by Zig Ziglar such as “your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”. The list goes on and on. An optimistic attitude is a good thing. Nobody wants to hang around with a curmudgeon.
With that said, sometimes thinking optimistically can be a hindrance. I may have just heard someone say “blasphemy”. Let me explain.
Whenever we begin a new endeavor, whether it’s a project, a trip or a business, we believe that it will be a success. If we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t do it. Nobody starts out thinking “I can’t wait for this to fail…let’s get started!” We have an inherent bias toward optimism. In the project management world this has been referred to as the “conspiracy of optimism”.
We’ve all heard of projects that began with much fanfare, only to crash and burn after huge cost overruns and delays. When the project finally is halted, a scapegoat is usually found and a team performs a post-mortem (after death). I think they should call it a post festum (after the feast). I know that the point of the exercise is to learn how and why things went wrong, but it’s too late. The patient has expired.
I’d like to suggest that we start doing what I call a pre mortem (before death). While we’re still healthy and kicking, let’s examine what could go wrongand how we might prevent those things from happening. For project managers, this would be risk management, but the way in which a pre mortem is performed is a bit different than gathering risks and creating a mitigation plan.
For a pre mortem exercise, I ask those involved to write a story for my eyes only. This narrative is about how and why the project will crash and burn. They can call out specific groups or even individuals. They can call out prior projects or experiences. They can gather and submit data. Basically, I ask them to tell me why this project will fail, not why it will succeed. Having the team members write this and send it only to me provides them with anonymity and allows me to understand risks from their perspective. This also enables the less assertive members of the team to communicate their thoughts without others rebutting. I can then roll this up into a comprehensive view of what we hope to accomplish, along with what could prevent success and how we deal with those risks.
I can think of many times when I wished I would have done this (boy do I). Had I taken just a bit more time and gotten input from a few others on potential gotchas, I could have saved myself time, money and grief. Even working solo, I could have reached out to my network for input, but didn’t. Can any of you relate to this?
When you’re about to begin your new endeavor and Pollyanna pays a visit, remember that there are people you know that can help you identify blind spots, so utilize them. Increase your odds of success by taking a broader view…and keep that positive attitude 🙂
Roy Gatling has over 25 years experience in Business Operations and Program Management inside Fortune 500 companies. Learn more about Roy by visiting