Project Management Institute

In praise of second chances

ASK PM NETWORK

Even after a major project goes bust, not everyone deserves to be sent off to the hinterlands.

BY BUD BAKER, Ph.D., CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

Q Due to no fault of our team, my very first project just exploded. Some team members have been let go, with the rest of us shuffled off to some pretty marginal projects. How can I regroup? Help! —Tony

 

A Chances are you've never heard of Robert K. Merton and yet he changed our lives, or at least the way we conceptualize them. A renowned 20th-century sociologist at Columbia University, Mr. Merton added to our language such everyday terms as “role model,” “unintended consequences” and “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But another Mertonian phrase applies in this case. The “Matthew effect” is drawn from a biblical phrase often translated as: To he who has much, much is given. A more cynical, modern interpretation is found in the adage, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”

Mr. Merton's real genius was in realizing his Matthew effect is all about spirals. Let's assume Tony's first project ended terrifically, with praise and honors for all participants. Fully deserved or not, Tony and his colleagues would be stamped as winners, rewarded with prestigious new jobs, the best training, first-rate mentorship and the like. As a result, they would probably continue to do well—the kudos would keep on coming, their motivation and effort would skyrocket, and their upward spiral would be on its way.

Of course, the Matthew effect can also work the other way. Tony's first project ended in disaster and so he's been shunted off to some organizational back alley. His motivation will soon suffer, as eventually will his effort. Before long, he'll be branded as, at best, unlucky and, at worst, unqualified. Soon Tony is in the unbreakable grip of a plunging death spiral, courtesy of the Matthew effect.

Keep in mind that all this may have little to do with merit and much more to do with luck. We have all seen cases in which the link between project performance and team member reward or punishment was murky at best. I once interviewed a famous retired U.S. Air Force general, a man deeply respected—and feared—by his people. I asked about his reputation for firing people first and asking questions later. Cigar clenched in his teeth, he growled, “Baker, I was never able to distinguish between the unable, the unwilling and the unlucky. So I fired ’em all!”

Reputation Recovery

The Matthew effect has a major impact on our project organizations. For whatever reason—inexperience, errors or maybe just bad luck—there are people on your teams like Tony, who are relegated to less-desirable positions based on performance shortfalls far in the past. And the reverse is also true. You may have people with reputations as winners who are living on their past successes, not their performance today.

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What does this mean for Tony? The optimistic advice would be to redouble his efforts, begin the slow slog up out of the trenches, and hope that time and the frailty of human memory—along with some turnover in upper management—allow his reputation to recover.

The less-optimistic recommendation is to look for a fresh start in a new setting, one where he won't be defined by his long-ago misfortunes.

More importantly, what does this mean for you as a leader of a project team? The Matthew effect suggests you have untapped talent in your organization, in the form of people who deserve a second look. If a team member's performance today is uninspiring, can it be rejuvenated with a fresh start, a new opportunity or maybe with the inspirational effect of your newly expressed confidence in them?

As I write this column in early September, a 17-year-old tennis prodigy is tearing through the field of the U.S. Open tournament. Melanie Oudin has reached the quarterfinals, after a series of improbable comebacks against ranked opponents. Asked about her pattern of falling behind and then rallying dramatically, she said, “I don't actually mean to lose the first set. I sometimes just start off slowly, I guess.”

For Tony, and the rest of us slow starters, making that comeback in project management sometimes requires a new beginning—in our current setting if we can get it, or in a new environment if we can't. Are you wise enough to offer that fresh start? PM

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to pmnetwork@imaginepub.com.

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PM NETWORK DECEMBER 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG

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