ple, can be infectious. When one person
in a system starts acting oddly, nearby
people have two choices: to label the behavior as odd or to act like it is normal.
If, for whatever reason, people act as if
someone’s weird actions are OK, they
themselves start behaving weirdly. It is
almost as if the odd behavior is catching. To compound the problem, we humans have built-in rationalizing capability that kicks in like a reflex when we
act in an odd or unethical manner. This
rationalization employs a thing called
“cognitive dissonance” and allows us
to continue to act in a weird way while
simultaneously retaining the conviction that we are not acting in a weird
way at all.a
the Project managers: Can-Do
A friend of mine, a project manager at
a large electronics company, described
this behavior in the planning meetings
he attends. The project managers reporting to the strong-willed and forceful vice president in charge of their division almost compete with each other to
promise things to the boss and pretend
they and their teams can do things they
really don’t think they can do at all. The
boss is the instigator. He puts enormous
pressure on his people and browbeats
them if they come up with numbers
he doesn’t like. When one manager
“caves” and agrees to something he (
secretly and privately) doesn’t think can
be done, the others feel they have to
do so as well. The compliant managers
then get praised by the vice president,
which reinforces the behavior.
Privately, the managers bemoan
their fate and wring their collective
managerial hands over what their boss
has forced them to commit to. But, until recently, they didn’t change their behavior.
the Construction manager:
first Law of behavior
Years ago, I was coaching a (
non-soft-ware) manager working in the construction industry. An affable and customer-centric person, his life was being made
very difficult by his primary customer.
The construction company built telephone switch centers and no matter
what the manager promised and agreed
a Tavris, C. and Aronson, E. Mistakes Were Made
(But Not by Me). Harvest Books, 2003.
to do for his customer, the customer always wanted more. In fact, it seemed
like the more he gave the customer the
more was wanted. The “customer is always right” approach did not seem to
be working. After much discussion we
The customer was a very strong- ˲
willed and decisive person.
Asking for “more” is a perfectly ap- ˲
propriate thing for a customer to do,
especially from the customer’s perspective.
The customer was asking for more ˲
because more was being provided.
If the construction manager agreed ˲
to do more, it meant he must be able to
As a strong-willed decisive person, ˲
the customer was expecting the manager to be equally strong-willed and
decisive in deciding what could not be
The customer would continue pil- ˲
ing on until the project manager said
This could be called “Newton’s First
Law of Behavior”: every behavior will
continue until acted upon by another
behavior. We could even extend this to
Newton’s Third Law and infer that the
other behavior must be equal and opposite. This meant the project manager
had to learn how to apply equal force in
saying “no” to the extra work to balance
the force the customer was applying in
demanding the extra work.
breaking the Cycle
To stop this behavior, people and organizations must somehow get out of the
cycle. For the construction manager it
was to learn to be firm and to realize the
customer is not best served by trying
to do everything. The customer is best
served by most effectively doing the
most important things.
For the software project managers dealing with the vice president,
my friend bravely decided to break the
cycle himself. After working a lot on his
project’s estimation practice, he vigorously defended his estimates to the vice
president and simply refused to back
down when pressured to reduce the
projections. At one point, he even challenged the vice president to fire him if
necessary. The vice president wisely
chose not to do this and privately commented that it “took guts” to stand up
and hold your ground like that.
Then an interesting thing started
happening. Since there were dependencies operating between the division’s
projects, other project managers started intentionally “hooking” their project estimates and plans to my friend’s
project plan. Their reasoning was that
since the boss doesn’t mess with that
project if my project has dependencies
on it, he won’t mess with my project either. As each project stabilized by being
strongly coupled to more realistic project deadlines, everyone started calming
down. Inexorably, sanity spread across
the organization as people started committing only to things they really believed they could do.
The opposite can be true too, as evidenced in the case of the financial
forecasting scenario mentioned earlier. Confronted with the president’s
demand to “…make these numbers hap-pen…” the Ph.D. economists returned
to their financial forecasting groups
and had to figure out how to ignore factors or promote factors to make it happen. One can imagine the chief economist’s assistant saying “…but why would
we ignore this factor, boss? We’d be crazy
to do that! That’s not how it works!” To
which the chief economist might reply
“Well, that’s how it works if you want to
keep your job…”.
Then cognitive dissonance kicks in
and people start rationalizing: “…well
maybe the factor really isn’t that impor-tant…” and, starting from the top, everyone starts separating from reality.
In the business of software, this
cycle results in significant and perennial overcommitments. Lacking well-defined estimation practices, these
commitments are simply the wishes
of the strongest-willed people with the
highest authority—unless the organizations and people that work for them
can provide the appropriate counter-response.
It seems that sensible behavior or
weird behavior will grow within organizations rather like a disease propagates.
It is an upward or a downward spiral.
But we can choose the direction.
Phillip G. Armour ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior
consultant at corvus international inc., Deer Park, il.