Project Management Hubris

When you consider the various potential pitfalls that can befall a large organizational project, lack of hubris is usually not among them. Hubris is a term often applied to politicians, celebrities, and the like, and implies a downfall due to excessive pride and self-conceit. While not on the curriculum of most project management training, I have seen hubris waste millions and derail projects at marquee companies, usually on some of their most important projects, when their confidence in their abilities was at its highest.

It’s not new news that we are in a time of project-focused organizations. The marketplace and world as a whole are rapidly changing, and most of the interesting and strategic work in organizations revolves around short-duration efforts to accommodate and leverage these changes. We’ve emerged from the dark ages of project management where you assigned a manager and hoped for the best, to an era of methodologies, monitoring, and formality. Many organizations have become extremely effective at project management, and as a result have developed a growing sense of hubris, accelerating project dates, trimming budgets and staff, and then slapping themselves on the back when the project is successful despite these self-imposed risks. This creates a vicious cycle of success, where a positive outcome is attributed to an innate greatness rather than careful planning, thoughtful staffing, appropriate budgets, and management oversight. Just like the Hollywood story of the scrappy young boxer whose success eventually makes him fat and lazy, and ripe for a fall, so do some of the best companies project teams atrophy in the same manner.

The most dangerous scenario is that this atrophy progresses unnoticed, as you continue to succeed in your project-related endeavors. Perhaps there are a few bumps, and dire warnings from staff, but these are largely ignored as you meet increasingly aggressive dates, and devote minimal attention to staffing and leadership development on your project teams. In this environment, a critical project that puts core enterprise functions at risk is launched with the same glib attitude as a routine and low-risk effort. This is when billion dollar missteps occur.

Avoiding the pitfalls of hubris is conceptually simple, and involves little more than continuing to learn from each success or failure, and realizing that most of your success is attributable to careful planning and diligent execution, not some innate greatness that only your organization possesses. Similarly, always apply an effort to planning and staffing that is commensurate with the risk level of the project. Like the athlete that stays attuned to his or her body, and knows when to train harder, and when to rest and reflect on what might be wrong, listen to your team and monitor the performance of your projects, lest you have the organizational equivalent of a pulled muscle a few meters into a marathon.

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