Know When to Give Up: Apply Objective Positivity, Patience, and Persistence

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Knowing when to and when not to give up on a project is a sign of clear thinking and effective management and leadership.

Positivity, patience, and persistence are needed when you are working to achieve a challenging objective. Yet even these qualities can be overdone and become toxic. Without objectivity they can lead to frustration and wasted efforts.

Toxic positivity is over-optimism that avoids reality by denying the negative. Positivity is healthy, but too much of anything can be toxic.

Toxic patience and persistence is stubbornness – persistence without a realistic sense of the likelihood of success. It leads to wasted efforts, frustration, and damaging behavior. It is driven by a fear of failure or biased thinking.

With mindful objectivity, you can recognize when persistence and patience are futile. Then with a positive attitude, learning from the experience, you go on to the next challenge with a greater probability of success.


Struggling with a puzzle, my friend said “I just can’t do this. I’m quitting these puzzles.” Some hours later, she solved it.

Impatience had driven pessimism – “a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future” according to  Oxford Languages.

Maybe the experience triggered deep seated self-doubt or maybe past experiences programmed a sense of failure when obstacles were encountered. Pessimism was overcome by patient persistence. Something kept my friend working at it. Possibly, it was the need to overcome the feelings that drove her pessimism.

Pessimism makes persistence more difficult.  Negative thinking sets up self-fulfilling prophesy – “I can’t do it so I won’t do it. … See, it’s not done. I told you I couldn’t do it.”  Pessimism in organizations saps motivation and leads to poor performance.

But remember the difference between realistic assessment and pessimism. Thinking that the worst can happen can be quite useful.

It is the part of risk management when we try to predict the conditions that will get in the way of achieving our objectives. Edward de Bono in his Six Hats Thinking method includes a Black Hat. In this part of the process planners and decision makers purposefully set their minds to identify risks, difficulties and problems with the intent to either overcome them or decide that the likelihood of occurrence and impact are strong enough to cause decision makers to abandon their plan.


Honest assessment

In project work we often find that assessments are influenced by bias. Thoughts like “Never give up” or “Good vibes only” seem helpful but can reinforce the ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy‘ — the bias that leads people to carry on with efforts that will never pay-off. This bias fuels toxic persistence based on thinking that since so much has already been spent we must push on.

Fear comes into the picture as well. Project managers may feel that admitting failure can mean career set back. As a result, they may play down risks and over optimistically misstate the probability of success. Others may fear being labeled as a pessimist or trouble maker if they bring up problems and difficulties.

Making an honest assessment requires managing the decision-making process so that decision makers take multiple perspectives. They look at the facts, take positive and “pessimistic” views, use intuition, and creativity. When any one of these views are over or under used, decision quality will suffer.

Know When to Give Up and When to Keep on Keeping on

Often, the decision to pull the plug on a project is a subjective one. But with objective criteria, the facts, creative thinking, and effective risk management, consensus can be attained.

When you apply objectivity, you realistically recognize when patient persistence is futile. Then, with a positive attitude, learning from the experience, you go on to the next challenge. You don’t “through good money after bad.”

Know when to give up. Remember that failure is OK, particularly if you learn from it. Letting go and admitting failure frees you up to greater success.

Being able to objectively recognize the subtle signs of toxic positivity and stubborn clinging to lost causes is a success factor. At the same time, knowing when to keep going is one too. What if Thomas Edison gave up after 999 attempts at inventing the light bulb? It took 1,000.


As with so many important issues, there is no clear, by the numbers, formulaic way of knowing when to give up or when to keep on keeping on.

Intuition comes into play as the inner sense of knowing that success is just around the corner overcomes negative thinking and the insistence of others that there is no sense in continuing. Intuition also can tell us that it is time to give up.

With mindful self-awareness you can become comfortable with paradox and with the difference between the felt sense of being driven by self-confidence and the sense of being irrationally stubborn. Add to that the power of candid and collaborative assessment and you will make the right decision.

Making the Right Decision

When ending a project before its objectives have been met, the right decision is the one that “seems” to be in the best interest of the organization.

The decision point may be at a preplanned checkpoint or at a time when senior stakeholders get so fed up with budget overruns or delays that they take up the question of cancelling the project.

At that point the need is to step back and decide based on the perceived value of the outcome, the realistic probability of success, and the expected cost and schedule to completion. It is as if you were starting the project from that point. Do not fall into the sunk coast bias, make an honest assessment, and avoid fear and blame.

Perhaps it goes without saying that once a decision to abort a project is made, be sure to hold an effective performance review to learn from the experience. Remember that failure is OK if you learn from it and avoid repeating it in the future.

VUCA, BANI and Digital Transformation: Managing Radical Change

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Radical change is in the air. On a global level, the world order has been disrupted by war, pestilence, the rise of authoritarianism, and the obscuration of what ‘truth’ means. Add to this the confluence of digital transformation, hybrid, and remote work, and economic disruption and we have radical change. It is the kind of change that makes reliance on history and traditional coping techniques ineffective. It brings great uncertainty.

Everything is changing and there is no telling where it will take us.

Project and program managers, organizational leaders, technologists, and all who are affected by the results of transformation must master working with people undergoing change. To be a master of change is to personally be able to stay calm and focused when faced with chaos – to manage one’s own change response. Then effective action is possible.

On an organizational level, mastery is evidenced by transition planning and execution with an emphasis on the human factor – emotional and social intelligence, resistance to change, training, ongoing support, flexibility, resilience, acceptance.

Radical Change

“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” —  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Radical change is a change that has a great impact. It is a revolution. It is transformation, metamorphosis. After a radical change, the caterpillar is no longer a caterpillar.

Radical change is not particularly new in world history. Just in the last few hundred years, we have had fundamental changes to the fabric of society – the printing press, the industrial revolution, capitalism, communism, the advent of electricity and electronics, radio, TV, world wars, computers, medical breakthroughs, nuclear weaponry, social media, and more.

Digital Transformation

In the realm of organizations, digital and business transformations are radical changes. Projects, and programs start and keep the change rolling to a desired new way of being.

Digital Transformation implies business transformation. It is a complex change that relies on people performing processes that use technology. Transformation shakes up the organization, its processes, and its roles and responsibilities. Jobs will go, relationships will change, new skills and a new way of thinking will be needed.

Back in 2017, for a presentation to CIOs, I wrote, The goal is to execute a strategy that provides effective, secure, and adaptable IT capabilities to enable business innovation and sustainability. Managing digital transformation means organizing, motivating, and empowering technology and business stakeholders to address long-term needs, technology trends, human needs, and uncertainty.”

I highlighted the need for cognitive readiness – “The capacity to adapt to a complex and unpredictable environment, to moderate volatility, accept uncertainty, acknowledge the complexity and minimize ambiguity to enable optimal performance.”

While digital transformation is not war in your homeland, it strikes at basic needs for security, belonging, and recognition. It presents an opportunity to work through the anxiety and stress to manage the change. It is an opportunity to cultivate self-actualization – “to become everything one is capable of becoming.”[1]

When digital transformation is seriously undertaken there is complex change on multiple levels. There is no solid ground, we are in free fall. And this brings us to the concepts of VUCA and BANI.


VUCA has become a familiar term to many. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. A more recent acronym, BANI, refers to extreme VUCA, VUCAn .

Things are unfolding moment to moment. We are faced with extreme, instable, chaotic, surprising, and disorienting situations. BANI (brittleness, anxiety, non-linearity, and incomprehensibility) is an acronym that has come into use to help find ways to handle this kind of change.

  • Brittleness refers to being in new and uncharted situation. It is brittle because rigidity sets in – wanting to hold on to the way things were, wanting control.
  • Anxiety is caused by facing the unknown and lacking control. Beyond anxiety there is existential fear – “Will I lose my job? “Will I and those I love to survive?”
  • Non-linearity is the realization that we are in a highly complex situation with multiple dimensions spiraling in multiple directions. This feeds anxiety and incomprehensibility.
  • Incomprehensibility – we can’t get the mind around the situation unless we go beyond intellect, use intuition, and accept the freedom of not knowing.

Preparation, Acceptance, and Resilience

Digital transformation need not be a BANI experience. Anxiety can be avoided and managed with the right attitude and effective planning and execution. We can make the change comprehensible through analysis, communication, and training. We can make the brittle change supple by getting better at flexible planning and openness to change.

To manage extreme circumstances, cultivate

1) The abilities to accept, relax, stop resisting, allow things to be how they are. Remember, acceptance means being realistic about what you can and cannot change. It is the platform for effective action. Acceptance enables resilience.

2) Resilience and the confidence that you can handle anything that comes. Resilience means to recover and carry on. It is best understood as going through a difficult event and coming out of the experience better than you were before. Resilience relies on acceptance.

Leading through Transformation

To succeed leaders must engender innovation, resiliency, clear thinking, and collaboration throughout the organization.

In a recent interview, Professor Linda Hill highlighted the need for interpersonal and self-awareness skills to manage digital transformation and to be effective leaders in general. Part of their transformation is to not only cultivate their own skills but to ensure that the whole organization cultivate theirs. [2]

Digital transformation, pandemic, war, and socio-economic unrest combine to create anxiety and resistance to change as people realize that they are faced with the unknown in an extremely complex environment – VUCAn, BANI, free fall, non-linear, out of control, incomprehensible, no direction home.

To succeed, everyone, leaders and all the rest need self-awareness, emotional intelligence, systems thinking, and the ability to “let go” into the unknown, accepting the loss of the comforts of the past.

Professor Hill’s studies say that organizations at the forefront of digital transformation “hired coaches to work with the C-suite to help them figure out how to be effective leaders that were creating an environment in which people want to be willing and able to innovate.” [3]

Coaching and support are needed throughout the organization. This may happen naturally as C-suite people understand the need and act upon their understanding. Otherwise, those who understand the nature of the change they are experiencing can work to convince leadership that people-focus is a significant success factor.

See my Project Times article, “Welcoming Uncertainty with Self-awareness”[4] for more on this subject.

[1] Maslow, 1987, p. 64


[3] Ibid


Welcoming Uncertainty with Self-awareness

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Everyone confronts fear. Either they maintain clear-minded focus or react with denial or panic.

Individuals, teams, and organizations perpetuate dysfunctional policies and procedures because they are afraid to open Pandora’s Box of transformative change.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

While it takes effort, ‘a hard time’, it is possible to overcome the fear of the unknown and by doing so alleviate the suffering caused by dysfunctional performance.

 Fear of the unknown

The unknown, uncertainty, is at the root of worry, anxiety, and fear. Since what will happen in the future is unknowable, Project managers, executives, and all the other stakeholders face uncertainty. Sure, we can make plans and analyze trends and past performance, but no one knows the future with 100% accuracy. Uncertainty is a certainty[1].

Many attempt denial – “We have a plan and it says that the work WILL be done by the target date for the budgeted cost.” Others realize that change and uncertainty are natural and inevitable but are fearful, worrying about what might happen if the project slips and spending goes through the roof. Some will experience fear but won’t be fearful.


Fearful Reactivity vs. Responsiveness

To be fearful (full of fear) means to be driven by fear. Courage is about using the energy of emotion to remain calm enough to think, act, and communicate clearly and effectively. It is what makes the difference between highly successful project managers and others.

To be responsive, to think clearly, and make effective decisions, requires cognitive readiness or VUCA tolerance. VUCA is volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The higher your tolerance for VUCA, the more likely you will be able to handle stressful situations.

 Inner Workings

VUCA tolerance requires that you confront your inner workings. These are beliefs, biases, denial, clinging to impossible goals, emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, greed, and jealousy, and their causes. Confronting these put one face to face with the unknown.

What if my beliefs are unreal?

What will happen if I confront the ‘inner workings’ that are behind my fear, my perfectionism, procrastination, anger, and whatever else gets in the way of effective behavior?


Facing these natural inner dynamics is to be self-aware. Self-awareness enables self-management and self-management is the key to VUCA tolerance. Self-management is the part of emotional intelligence that allows fear or any other emotion to be fully felt and then choosing what to do be responsiveness.

Cultivate Self-awareness

How does one cultivate self-awareness? The process begins with the recognition that it is an essential ingredient – some say, the most essential – for being able to perform optimally. Self-awareness “lies at the root of strong character, giving us the ability to lead with a sense of purpose, authenticity, openness, and trust. It explains our successes and our failures.”[2]

Until you make the connection between performance and self-awareness, you are likely to be reactive, driven by emotions, beliefs, and biases. And that is true for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Self-awareness implies objectivity, looking at yourself and your performance as if you were looking at anyone else. It is taking a step back to see yourself as others see you and to see what is going on “under the hood”, internally. To be self-aware combine the following:

  • Use mindfulness meditation to cultivate the ability to objectively observe whatever is happening within and around you
  • Identify your goals, priorities, values, beliefs, biases, and intentions and track your performance with them as a benchmark
  • Inventory your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats
  • Get feedback as individuals by taking character/personality assessment tests to better understand your character[3]
  • Get a team and organizational feedback using assessment tools and open dialog
  • Get feedback from those you live and work with
  • Create a relationship with a coach or mentor.

Teams and Organizations

Teams and organizations are subject to the same dynamics as the individuals that make them up. The “self-aware” team or organization will explore its character and environment to identify the things that get in the way of optimal performance.

Based on objective criteria there will be conscious effort to improve by eliminating what gets in the way and making maximum use of the strengths of its members to overcome weaknesses and avoid or manage risks.

But not all teams and organizations are self-aware. They do not shed the light of performance analysis on themselves for reasons such as lack of time, insufficient assessment skills, and fear of exposing their weaknesses.

Many pay lip service to objective performance assessment and continuous improvement. They may collect performance data and have reviews, but they don’t use the results. Some hide results that are too embarrassing. Some never act upon identified opportunities for improvement.


We are living in a time of transformation. Transformational change is frame-breaking. It completely changes the way you think and work. It alters relationships and changes values and policies. With transformational change, there is no going back, and the way forward is unknowable.

Digital transformation brings technologies like artificial intelligence, process automation, robotics, and data analytics into play. Their application breaks new ground and significantly impacts people’s roles and responsibilities.

Transformation to Agile and Lean approaches from more highly structured ways to manage and perform projects change relationships, roles, and responsibilities. It changes the techniques used in planning. It changes project managers’ and other stakeholders’ skill set requirements with a greater reliance on collaboration and communication. It opens teams and the organization to greater transparency.

 Moving Forward

Moving forward into the unknown is scary. Self-awareness is possible but cultivating it is not necessarily easy. It requires that you objectively assess your inner workings and the way they influence personal and group performance and use the insights you get to improve.

Related resources:

Ready For Anything – Mindfully Aware – PM Times › articles › ready-for-any.. .

Ready for Anything – Courage and Insight – PM Times › articles › ready-for-any…

Managing Project Expectations and The Courage to Push Back


The Key to Performance Improvement: Candid … – Project Times› articles › the-key-to-per…› project-management-tips

Cognitive Readiness in Project Teams: Reducing Project …› books

Improve Performance by Mindfully Managing Stress by …› 2021/06/04

Self-aware Living

[1] There are notable exceptions like, change and death, but we won’t get into those here.

[2] Harvard Business Review, “5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware” by Anthony K. Tjan,

[3] There are many self-assessment tests. For a sampling see Psychology Today “Self Tests” at and “14 Free Personality Tests That’ll Help You Figure Yourself Out”