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How to Stop Bad Momentum When Projects Start to Go Wrong

Five sources of dysfunctional momentum, and what firefighters can teach executives about thwarting crises before they grow out of control.
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Yawn. We’ve all heard the speech about how the risks of business are just like the perils of mountain climbing, skydiving, or whitewater rafting. At this point, it’s easy to be skeptical--and flat-out bored--of business wisdom plumbed from encounters with Mother Nature. Nevertheless, we were floored by the research on firefighters published by Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Read their study on teams that fight wildfires, and you really will learn more about snuffing out emerging problems before they spiral out of control.

Their article is called “Learning When to Stop Momentum.” One of its most useful nuggets is the term dysfunctional momentum: “When people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course.” Firefighters, of course, are compelled to routinely shift strategies in midstream in the face of cues about what ungovernable, unpredictable forces--such as wind and the fire itself--will do next.

In organizations, there are five sources of dysfunctional momentum:

1. Action orientation. “Our culture values action and decisiveness,” write the authors. “We get rewarded for making progress and getting things done.” Sometimes the emphasis on action prevents executives from performing preliminary evaluations and heeding cautions.

2. Inflexible planning. “Planning often locks business organizations into courses of action because the repercussions of going off-plan are so serious,” Barton and Sutcliffe say.

3. The ripple effect. “The interdependencies of an organization’s components often mean that small changes in one part of the system can affect multiple other parts,” the authors write. If executives operate under the assumption that small changes will remain small, they may be surprised at how large--and quickly--the drama spreads.

4. Rationalization. This is when leaders find some rationale to ignore evidence that, if looked at clearly, would cause discomfort. “In her analysis of the 1986 Challenger disaster,” say the authors, “sociologist Diane Vaughan noted the tendency to ‘normalize’ cues that space shuttle problems were arising.”

5. Deference to perceived expertise. Employees on the frontlines--often with lower organizational ranks than the decision-makers--sometimes “abdicate their own responsibility for monitoring situations and taking action to change them if necessary.”

So, how do you halt disruptive momentum? In a phrase: Lose your tunnel vision. Never be so absorbed in a plan that you can’t interrupt it to ask: “What’s the story now? Is it the same story as before? If not, how has it changed? And how, if at all, should we change our actions?”

We know--easier said than done. To their credit, the authors homed in on two traits important not only for creating interruptions but also for heeding them as opportunities to adjust on the fly:

Situated humility. This is when individuals are humble enough to acknowledge their own inability “to understand or predict the unfolding situation.” One firefighter put it like this: “As old as I am and as experienced as I am in relation to these large fires, when I walk into the next fire I initially won’t know anything. So I’m not going to come in there with guns blazing.”

A culture that encourages interruptions. Foster an atmosphere where employees--especially those on the frontlines, who often see the trouble before the higher-ups do--are unabashed about raising concerns and constructively questioning senior leaders. In turn, those leaders need to practice making themselves available to interruptions, instead of dismissing them as distractions. The authors recount examples of fires thwarted because of tips that junior firefighters gave their superiors--tips the superiors welcomed without hesitation.

This article was originally published at The Build Network.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Mar 5, 2014

THE BUILD NETWORK STAFF

The Build Network staff curates provocative, actionable leadership advice for executive teams running sustained-growth companies.




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