Management By Optimism

Parkinson’s Law says that “work expands to fill the time available”. If you don’t have much to do, it doesn’t inspire productivity. If you have loads to do, it often inspires procrastination, but I digress.

Today, however, I want to address the corollary to this. Some people seem to believe that since work expands to fill available time, work will also CONTRACT to fit the available time. It usually plays out like this:

Project Team Member: Getting the environment set up took two weeks longer than anticipated, so now we don’t have enough time to test. I think we need to move the go-live date.
Project Manager: No, no, I’m sure you’ll manage it.
Project Team Member: As I said, I think compressing the testing down to just 2 days is a serious mistake. We’d be risking the whole project!
Project Manager: Listen, I’m sure you understand this is a really important project. We MUST make that date. You’ll just have to make it work.

This, my friends, is Management By Optimism. It is probably the most dangerous management trend in evidence today. When you see it, start to worry, because it is probably the biggest threat to your projects and to your careers.

Management BY Optimism is very different to being optimistic. Being optimistic is seeing the cup as half-full — trying to think the best rather than the worst in a given situation. Management By Optimism, on the other hand, is about IGNORING potential failure. Just because the impact of a particular risk is severe, the risk is regarded as extremely unlikely. Rather than facing the problem and dealing with it, it is ignored until a catastrophic point is reached — or until the relevant manager can jump ship and blame the sinking on the crew.

So what can you do if you worry that Management By Optimism will scupper your project? Well, firstly, look out for the signs. Failing to consider real risks, reacting adversely to the suggestion that the plan or schedule is unrealistic are both big warning signs. Secondly, try to address the problem in a constructive way. Sometimes we all delude ourselves into thinking things are better than they are. Holding a team risk-assessment meeting can help — just get everyone to rate how severe and how likely they think a risk is. It will quickly become apparent if the team cannot envision a successful outcome when the leader is dead-set upon it (and vice versa).

Or, if there is no other option, bring in the big guns — take it as an issue to the Project Board and make clear that there are real concerns about the chances of success. Much as “it’s going to be late/over budget/under quality” is unlikely to be POPULAR news, any senior manager worth their paycheck should realise that early warning is significantly better than unanticipated failure.

Do you have some examples of Management By Optimism and perhaps other ways to combat it? Share in the comments!

4 Comments

  • I’ve seen examples of this in action, though I usually refer to it as “management by fiat” — that is, “do what I say and that’s that”.

    Examples include: “This one is very important, coming straight from the CEO and must be done by X. Nights, weekends, whatever it takes to get this one done.” — The main issues being that “this one” happens at least once a month, with no reasons specified other than “the CEO needs it” and that practicality is not factored into the date at all.

    My only real advice is: make sure the CEO or whoever the unreasonable party is knows that their dates must be based on feasibility and practicality in addition to other factors.

  • Once the leadership breaks their organization’s planning process and can start managing by fiat/enforced optimism then there is nothing short of a total crash and burn to dissuade them to stop doing this to themselves and their people. One response is to bring the price of what this sudden deadline will cost the organization. Outline the projects which will be jettisoned or shelved until the suddenly top priority project is complete. Better to make the point early than explain later or be trying to get everything done. Get it out on the white board. It can be a sobering moment for the optimist to face and frees you to surprise this person with getting more done than you expected. Even if it all ends with an unreasonable ‘you can do it all’ then it is a benchmark against which to refer as things go wrong.

  • You have put in words something I have been trying to formular in my head for ages. I’d got as far as “you’re bloody idiots focussed on delivering no matter what the cost”, but this is a little more eliquent.

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