Protect Your Project From Escalating Doubts

Important projects can easily get caught in a downward spiral if key stakeholders start questioning the project’s progress and withdrawing support. Savvy executives should be aware of common issues that can cause stakeholder skepticism — and take action to avert the “cycle of doubt” before it takes hold.

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Your project began with a bang. The launch created positive buzz, and you have a solid plan to deliver on the initiative’s value proposition. Stakeholders who will drive the project forward are squarely behind it. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. But some leaders are unaware that great projects with strong starts can stumble and fall into what we call the “cycle of doubt,” when support wanes or dissipates, delivery is imperiled, and objectives go unmet. Others may recognize the potential for diminishing post-launch support among key contributors but are not attuned to the telltale warning signs, nor do they have safeguards in place to protect a project’s reputation and momentum against a downward spiral.

Consider the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen satellite-based air traffic system initiative, which has a broad network of contributors crucial to delivery, including the FAA, airports, airlines, and aircraft manufacturers. Project advocates emphasize the technology’s value in modernizing and improving the efficiency of the entire U.S. National Airspace System. Despite its compelling raison d’être (and the fact that the FAA has been on time and on budget installing advanced towers for tracking aircraft1), the multibillion-dollar NextGen project has fallen into the cycle of doubt. If the FAA’s ground towers are to achieve their intended purpose, the U.S. airline industry must update the technology on its aircraft, at a cost of billions of dollars.2 However, many airlines have been less than enthusiastic about proceeding because they lack faith in the FAA’s ability to ensure timely delivery of related aspects of the project (such as training for controllers) that are necessary for its success. Why?

According to an executive with the trade group Airlines for America, “There’s history here. … We have equipped our planes at great expense, and then it takes the FAA three years to train controllers and design processes where we can benefit.”3 Because of such doubts, most carriers have been slow to implement the new technology. In 2015, the FAA agreed to allow airlines to apply for extensions of the 2020 installation deadline to as late as 2025 for some satellite navigation upgrades.4 Meanwhile, in 2016, a U.S.



1. S. Carey and A. Pasztor, “Report Faults Rollout of Air-Traffic-Control Upgrade,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 24, 2014.

2. Ibid.; and S. Carey, “The FAA’s $40 Billion Adventure: Years Late, a High-Tech ‘NextGen’ Project to Unsnarl U.S. Aviation Is Beginning to Speed Flights,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19, 2013.

3. Carey and Pasztor, “Report Faults Rollout of Air-Traffic-Control Upgrade.”

4. A. Pasztor, “Carriers Gain Leeway on Navigation Upgrade,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct.17, 2015.

5. A. Halsey III, “House Republicans Move Ahead With Plan to Shift 38,000 FAA Workers,” The Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2016,

6. K.A. Brown, R. Ettenson, and N.L. Hyer, “Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One),” MIT Sloan Management Review 52, no. 4 (summer 2011): 61-68.

7. For a recent discussion of how to reduce the “unknown unknowns” in project work, see T. Browning and R. Ramasesh, “Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management,” MIT Sloan Management Review 56, no. 3 (spring 2015): 53-62.

8. See

9. E. Richey, “How Data Analysis Helps Police Departments Fight Crime,” Forbes Transformational Tech, June 3, 2014; D. Gambacorta, “Philadelphia’s Homicide Tally Shows Dramatic Drop,” Philadelphia Daily News, April 5, 2013; and R. Wilson, “In Major Cities, Murder Rates Drop Precipitously,” Washington Post, Jan. 2, 2015.

10. Carey, “The FAA’s $40 Billion Adventure.”

11. Ibid.; and Carey and Pasztor, “Report Faults Rollout of Air-Traffic-Control Upgrade.”

12. D. Dvir and A. Shenhar, “What Great Projects Have in Common,” MIT Sloan Management Review 52, no. 3 (spring 2011): 19-21.

13. Carey, “The FAA’s $40 Billion Adventure.”

14. Ibid.

15. For a discussion of how successful project leaders cope with the challenges of frequent unexpected events, see A. Laufer, E. Hoffman, J. Russell, and W. Cameron, “What Successful Project Managers Do,” MIT Sloan Management Review 56, no. 3 (spring 2015): 43-51; and Browning and Ramasesh, “Reducing Unwelcome Surprises in Project Management.”

16. Recent research on successful business-analytics projects underscores the importance of engaging stakeholders “as much as possible, as opposed to merely informing them after the fact.” See S. Viaene and A. Van den Bunder, “The Secrets to Managing Business Analytics Projects,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 1 (fall 2011): 65-69. This quote is from p. 67.

17. Other research affirms the value of tapping the perspective beyond the team. Doing so can “give organizations a competitive advantage when dealing with complex projects.” See J. Cummings and C. Pletcher, “Why Project Networks Beat Project Teams,” MIT Sloan Management Review 52, no. 3 (spring 2011): 75-80. This quote is from p. 80.

18. K.A. Brown, N.L. Hyer, and R. Ettenson, “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer,” MIT Sloan Management Review 55, no. 1 (fall 2013): 49-57.

19. Laufer et al. find that “when upper management fosters an organizational climate that embraces problems as an inherent part of a project’s progression, project managers are able to detect and resolve problems more successfully.” See Laufer et al., “What Successful Project Managers Do,” p. 49.

20. A large body of research on “escalation of commitment” has explored why decision makers are reluctant to abandon a failing course of action. For a review, see D. Sleesman, D. Conlon, G. McNamara, and J. Miles, “Cleaning Up the Big Muddy: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Determinants of Escalation of Commitment,” Academy of Management Journal 55, no. 3 (June 2012): 541-562; and W. Meyer, “The Effect of Optimism Bias on the Decision to Terminate Failing Projects,” Project Management Journal 45, no. 4 (August/September 2014): 7-20.

i. Brown et al., "Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One)."

ii. Brown et al., “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer.”

iii. For good discussions of the critical roles of project sponsors in project success, see T. Kloppenborg and D. Tesch, “How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success,” MIT Sloan Management Review 56, no. 3 (spring 2015): 27-30; and “Executive Sponsor Engagement: Top Driver of Project and Program Success,” Project Management Institute and Boston Consulting Group, October 2014.

iv. J. Binder, “Global Project Management: Communication, Collaboration and Management Across Borders” (Farnham, U.K.: Routledge, 2007).

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Comments (2)
Pablo Manriquez
For me, this is a great article to revisit tonight for guidance on a night of missed sleep over my concept, which is yet unproved. 

Also, earlier this year, this article taught me the world colocate, which I often use now, if for no other reason than to see who else doesn't know what 'colocate' means either. I'm guessing most people don't know what it means, but can't say for sure.  That's a question for another study, I suppose.

Okay, back to 1) Prove the concept. 

Wish me luck!  Thanks again!
Paul Teeuwen
As for 2 (Keep it short or break it up) TOGAF and Archimate have the concepts of Transiition Architectures and Plateaus which help to define the intermediate steps.
Key point is that each step should have business value – it is not just an internal project step.

Especially in IT, point 7 (Revitalize a project with outside resources) can create more problems than it solves. Often it is a sign of doing too many projects at the same time.
Some companies now take an alternative path, in having a fixed number of people available for projects, and only approving projects that fit in this fixed bandwidth. Extending this bandwidth is only done in the yearly planning, not for one project at a time,