Your Project Is Vulnerable. Do You Know the Warning Signs?

Large projects can succumb to a “cycle of doubt” — when support for the project wanes and delivery is imperiled, in a self-perpetuating negative spiral. Here’s how to spot the warning signs of stakeholder doubts — before they derail your project.

You’ve launched a major project that is important to your organization — and your career. Now the question is: Will your project maintain the support from contributors and stakeholders that it needs to succeed — or is it vulnerable to second-guessing that traps it in a downward spiral of doubt and skepticism?

Our project management research, conducted with our late colleague Karen A. Brown, has revealed that even promising, high-profile projects can succumb to a dynamic we call the “cycle of doubt” — when support for the project wanes or dissipates and delivery is imperiled. In our experience, the cycle of doubt begins when one or more “doubt triggers” have an adverse effect on the project’s postlaunch reputation — and thus the level of favor the project enjoys among those whose energy and support are critical to delivery of results. Factors such as shifting organizational priorities, changes in leadership, and distrust of information about the project’s progress all can serve as doubt triggers that scuttle a project’s reputation within an organization and, ultimately, its chances for success.

Regardless of the status of time, cost, and performance metrics, an infusion of doubt can degrade a project’s reputation. This leads to a downward spiral that can feed on itself by causing important contributors and stakeholders to distance themselves from the initiative. Thus, when a project’s status suffers, it can be starved of the fuel it needs to maintain momentum and move forward. This downward spiral is self-perpetuating, but can be averted or even reversed with the right diagnostics and appropriate actions.

The first step in combating the cycle of doubt is to understand its causes. Our research uncovered four broad categories of doubt triggers that can draw a project into the cycle of doubt: priorities, leadership, delivery, and messaging. Across these categories, we identified a set of 16 specific and common triggers of doubt and their effects. To avert the cycle of doubt, project leaders should be vigilant to the presence of these triggers. With that in mind, we have created the Doubt Trigger Checklist that you can use to identify potential doubt triggers — before they derail your big project.

A savvy project leader makes effective use of the checklist by being alert to each doubt trigger throughout project delivery. Of course, the more items checked, the greater a project’s exposure to the cycle of doubt, and the more urgent the need for action to address reputational weaknesses.

Depending on the project, however, be aware that even a single doubt trigger among the 16 listed above could be sufficient to cause a debilitating reputation downturn. For example, we have found that the advent of other higher-priority projects into a company’s portfolio of ongoing initiatives can, by itself, usurp momentum from a once-promising initiative, derail its reputation, and send it into the cycle of doubt.

The value of the checklist lies in helping identify a project’s current and potential reputational weaknesses so that the project’s leaders can develop appropriate doubt-mitigation measures. Periodically running through the checklist can forewarn project leaders of reputational landmines while there is still time for remediation.

For more information about how to implement effective action plans to avert and reverse the cycle of doubt, see our spring 2017 MIT Sloan Management Review article, with Karen A. Brown, “Protect Your Project From Escalating Doubts.”