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.
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.