leader with more than 1,000 projects completed described to us a project that went into freefall because
he thought he was “too smart to fail, despite a scope
that was too large to deliver as a single unit.” As the
project dragged on, contributors lost interest, support eroded, and the reputations of both the project
and the project leader plummeted.
An experienced project leader in the health care
industry said a key strategy for avoiding the cycle of
doubt and maintaining project momentum is to,
“wherever possible, scope the project to objectives
that can be accomplished in three to six months.”
For large projects with distant time horizons, this
can mean breaking the project into meaningful
subprojects, each with measurable results, like each
of NASA’s Apollo missions. For some projects,
however, partitioning may not be feasible or advan-
tageous. The project leader must determine
whether a project can be meaningfully divided into
subparts with shorter windows for deliverables.
3. Dedicate and, if possible, colocate the core
team. For initiatives significant enough to justify a
dedicated team, assigning members full time and colocating them has demonstrable advantages. It
signals organizational commitment, accelerates momentum, and compresses delivery time, all of which
reduce vulnerability to the cycle of doubt. Consider
the experience of an electronics industry CEO.
When a strategically vital corporate initiative with
physically dispersed, part-time contributors began
TRIGGERS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THE CYCLE OF DOUBT
Project leaders who are aware of the kinds of circumstances that trigger stakeholder skepticism are better positioned to take steps to avert negative
momentum before it derails a project. Here is a list of some of the most common triggers that can launch or exacerbate the cycle of doubt.
ASPECT OF PROJECT TRIGGERS OF DOUBT
Priorities • Shifting Priorities: More urgent or strategically important projects divert attention and resources.
• Forgotten or Fading “Why”ii: Project leaders fail to keep the project’s purpose, vision, and strategic value in the
forefront, leading to “so what” attitudes, fading motivation, and diminished contributions from key constituencies.
• Conflicts About What to Prioritize: Differences among stakeholders regarding the relative importance of time,
cost, and scope (often referred to as the “triple constraint” of project management) result in team members
working at cross-purposes.
Leadership • Musical Chairs: Changing the project sponsor or project leader results in diminished clout and continuity in project
vision and approach, undermining the project’s status.
• Sponsors Missing in Action: Fading support from key executives trickles down and negatively influences the
attitudes of others in the organization.iii
• Self-Serving Agendas: Stakeholders lose trust and withdraw if it becomes apparent that the project leader is
motivated by self-serving goals rather than by a legitimate business purpose.
Delivery • Delays in Deliverables: The project fails to meet expected deadlines for intermediate deliverables, causing contributors
and other stakeholders to become discouraged and disengage.
• Viability Concerns: Stakeholders disassociate themselves when completed deliverables have not met performance
expectations or outcomes do not show a clear path to the initiative’s business promise.
• Unrealistic Workloads: When the actual work begins, project contributors who were on board at launch realize
workloads exceed their expectations and/or capacity.
• Long Project Duration: Projects that extend over a long time frame are increasingly vulnerable to apathy, fatigue,
and attacks from detractors.
Messaging • Communication Vacuum: Key stakeholders do not receive timely project updates and lose confidence in project
performance. Rumors and speculation fill the void and can drift into social media and the press.
• Tyranny of Distance: The locus of project activity is geographically remote from important stakeholders, resulting in
communication lags, gaps, and misunderstandings.iv
• Inflated Performance Reports: Stakeholders become discouraged if they discover the project leader has painted a
falsely rosy picture of work completed and outcomes achieved.
• Negativity Bias: Progress reports emphasize negative outcomes and fail to highlight even small successes,
creating an unfavorable project brand.
• Failure to Listen: Contributors disengage when they do not believe their ideas, insights, and concerns are being
heard or taken seriously.