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.

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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.

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