Project Management

The only thing we have to fear on projects is...

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My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

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"... the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself."

When FDR spoke those words as part of his presidential inaugural address in March 1933, it was meant to inspire a nation to recover from the depths of the Great Depression.

But looking at global reactions to the new 2019-nCoV Coronavirus, I wonder if it would have been better stated as the only thing we have to fear is our reactions to fear itself.

This disease, like many before it, will injure and kill many before it is controlled. Economies will take time to recover from its impacts. But it is how we respond to it that will define how successful we are at recovering from it.

Whether it is the willful distribution of misinformation, hiding critical information to save face, latching on to snake oil remedies, or worse, ostracizing or even persecuting others just because of what they look like or where they come from, our reactions to this global crisis will either prolong or curtail the suffering.

So what is the project delivery lesson we can learn from this?

Issues will happen on projects. The magnitude of those issues will vary depending on the level of project complexity and the effectiveness of risk management practices. And sometimes the impacts of project issues can be dire.

But more often it is not the tangible impacts of those issues themselves that we have to be worried about, but rather how our stakeholders will respond to the issues. Acting on their amygdala impulses or using project issues as an opportunity to further personal agendas are unlikely to result in the best possible recovery outcomes.

I've witnessed projects which could have recovered fairly easily from an issue get pulled into a death roll by a few "crocodile" stakeholders. Rarely do these stakeholders suffer any personal consequences from their actions as scapegoats are easy to find.

So how do we combat this?

  • Increase transparency into what is known, what is believed and what is still unknown. Separating key information into these three buckets and updating and re-communicating this frequently will help to quell the spread of misinformation.
  • Increase predictability and consistency in our actions. When things are starting to spin out of control, stakeholders will be looking for stability within the chaos. If we are not doing what we say we will do, we will drive these stakeholders into the arms of false prophets.
  • Emphasize ongoing planning over plans. While it is important to develop and communicate recovery plans, we shouldn't fall into the trap of sticking to those plans when evidence refuting their value emerges. Our own biases will often be our worst enemies so reinforce the importance of radical candor among our trusted advisors.

"If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..." - Rudyard Kipling

Posted on: February 01, 2020 07:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (16)

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Dear Kiron
Interesting perspective on the topic: "The only thing we have to fear on projects is ..."
Thanks for sharing

Important tips to remember:
"- Increase transparency into what is known, what is believed and what is still unknown
- Increase predictability and consistency in our actions
- Emphasize ongoing planning over plans "

Do you believe that this will help to "calm the spirits" in the case of the corona virus?

It is said that this was already going to happen. I wonder why?


Spot on - I like your analogy and how you related it to project delivery. Well Said !


Thanks Rami - I love connecting the dots!

Thanks Luis - while the lessons I provide are for the project context, a global health crisis is a wholly more complex scenario as you have distributed, inconsistent governance and hundreds of stakeholders. However, those lessons are still relevant to the leaders of countries and major global bodies.

And you’re good at connecting dots.

You are so cool.

The courage to confront difficulties is not only useful in project management, but also an important indicator of life.
I was very sympathetic.


Yes, fear is our worst enemy, most of us lose a lot of our mind efficiencies when fear sets in.

Hello Kiron: As always, another thoughtful and beautifully stated blog. Thank you for sharing your insights and perspectives. They are valued.

Great points, Kiron. Thanks!

Thanks for sharing Kiron, I think the idea of separating information based on what is known, what is believed, and what is still unknown is very crucial here.

It's like making informed decisions based upon various data points.

'Attitude,' which is often defined as "a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior." is one another factor that can be crucial for handling such crises.


good discussion!

thank you for sharing, fear is a risk and will damage both projects and life if not well controlled,

Dear Kiron
After reading the latest news (the doctor's death), it seems that transparency in the processes and results is just a mirage ...

Thank you Kiron.
The fear that one of my projects is not working has greatly reduced my enthusiasm in other projects. I'm just reading this and I believe it will help me.

Hello Kiron - this is a particularly well timed article for me, given the new assignment I've been given as you were kind enough to comment about a couple of weeks ago. "Control our reaction to fear" will become a tagline for me I predict

I particularly liked your second bullet point about stability vs chaos. It is true that stakeholders do not necessarily have a full view of all the project's aspects and are therefore (for lack of better word) selfish about the impacts to their particular piece. The person best positioned to turn the chaos into organization is the PM who has the overall view of, and interactions between the stakeholders. Best regards, Melissa

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