Wishing doesn’t make it Real

But you’d be surprised how often project justifications contain wishes rather than solidly researched facts and conservative assumptions.

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I’ve seen it in acquisitions, in capital projects, in new product proposals, heck sometimes even in cost reductions.  Managers and professionals get sucked in by a project’s “sexiness” or their passionate need for the project to “work,” and manipulate the analysis to support their desires.  Quite often they end up getting what they want, weaving a story that is both exciting and convincing.

The problem comes when it is time for the rubber to meet the road – the road isn’t straight like it was expected to be, and the rubber is paper-thin.

Want and Need

Human beings are an interesting combination of emotion and rationality.  We react to many of the things we encounter on a daily basis at a visceral level, relying on already established synaptic pathways to guide rapid decisions.   While that is probably a pretty good survival tool, it doesn’t serve us well when it comes to major, long-term decisions.  We try to reduce this influence by substituting reasoned thought and analysis for instinct and gut feel.

Yet it still creeps in.  I’ve repeatedly seen the most senior executives fall in love with a proposal, and fall for whatever argument supports it.  I’ve done it myself.

Not giving in to your emotions requires self-discipline and self-awareness.  It requires a commitment to delving deeply for the truth (or the major risks, or the faulty assumptions).  It requires recognizing that no matter how fervently you want something to be true, no matter how desperately you need it to be a workable answer, you have to rely on facts and reality to make your decision.

Human beings seem to have a tough time accepting this.

An Unproven Process

One of my bigger career failings was the proposal, approval, and construction of a new factory which I expected to be a leap forward in operational productivity for my employer.  The project turned into a disaster when the new process proposed as the centerpiece of the factory couldn’t be made to work as advertised.

This business made a wide array of infrastructure products ranging in size from small to large.  My employer had a highly automated process to make the small products, one that gave them a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.  I feverishly wanted to bring those same advantages to the medium-sized products.

Unfortunately some of the processes we used on the small products couldn’t scale up.  I asked one of my engineers to develop a proposal for alternate processes that would give us similar productivity.  As originally envisioned, we would spend several years engaged in process development before ever proposing a full scale plant.

When an opportunity to avoid an new investment in conventional capacity arose, I couldn’t resist pushing the project forward.  Despite the risks, I’d fallen in love with the concept and convinced myself it would all “work out.”

Of course, it didn’t work out at all.  Not like I’d hoped.  The project fell far behind schedule as major problems with the new process arose.  Even when these were (partially) solved, the production rates fell far below what had originally been envisioned.  The plant became a failure, and contributed significantly to me losing my job.

The Wishes of Others

Potentially as damaging as falling in love with your own ill-conceived project, is inheriting someone else’s.  I’ve blogged extensively about the need to do a rigorous evaluation of projects you are inheriting – most recently in How to Handle a Hot Potato, and Doing your own "due diligence."  Suffice it to say, you almost can’t be too careful – or too critical – when you first are handed someone else’s project.

You have a significant, although short-term, advantage when inheriting a project – for a while you should be free of the emotional attachment to it that it’s “parents” may feel.  At that moment, you are in the best position to make an objective evaluation.

Politically, the situation may be quite different.  It may be painfully difficult to raise concerns and objections as  you will be “goring someone’s ox.”  But you must do it, otherwise the project becomes “yours” in the minds of your senior management.

The New Plant

I inherited a project for a new plant when initially coming into new job.  This particular project was built on a number of “excessively favorable” assumptions the totality of which wouldn’t have all come to pass in a century.

I scrubbed the project, realizing fairly quickly that I had a looming disaster on my hands.  Unfortunately for me, my boss was the one behind the original proposal.  That made raising objections difficult.  So I trickled my objections out over time, raising concerns as they were about to begin to impact the results.

It was an imperfect solution.  My protests were given some credence, but in the end, I couldn’t escape the poor results that came about as a result of the flawed project.


If a project sounds too good to be true, it undoubtedly is.  Follow up your suspicions with hard digging and research.  When you find problems you must speak up, otherwise you’ll end up owning them.

If you are the author of the project, do what you can to divorce yourself from your emotional attachment to the proposal.  Be objective.  Gather other opinions.  Have someone else evaluate the project before you submit it – preferable someone with an objective, outsider’s perspective – and have them specifically look for wishful thinking.  29.2

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To the right is the cover for DELIVERABLES.  This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, complete with a story about how a "deal" they are negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States.  Of course, everything is not exactly as it seems....

My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.