The snowball effect



If taken individually, small problems within a program are often mistaken for “normal” circumstances. But when added up, they can lead to a major crisis.

This happens particularly when program managers become distracted with non-core essentials or are preoccupied with past successes. Errors accumulate unnoticed over time and seem to have the innate ability to find the weakest parts of the process.

A natural response from many program managers is to introduce policies, procedures or direct supervision as a means of control. However attractive it may seem, adding another rule or holding somebody accountable often fails to solve problems in the long term.

So how can those charged with the heavy responsibility of achieving “failure-free” programs design, implement and execute their activities to secure exceptional performance?

Over the past five years, our research has examined several failures in program-driven organizations that threaten the viability of the business. Subjects included nuclear facilities, fire and rescue teams, high-security mental health services, humanitarian aid organizations, manufacturing plants, and numerous British National Health Service trusts.

There were clear differences across programs, but organizations and sectors, in almost every case, revealed the same basic approach: a priority on failure avoidance and an attempt to proactively design and manage the program to this end. This approach enables a program-wide emphasis on resilient performance, even in the presence of a threat or continuous stress.

In contrast, program-driven organizations that are less resilient strive for peak performance, often driven by instant profits or bonuses. Short-term success can breed complacency and overconfidence, often masking impending crises and making the investment in medium-term reliability increasingly difficult to justify.

In these circumstances, programs can become accustomed to regular failure and attract leaders who thrive on the pressure of saving them. Such “firefighters” manage the crisis, limit damage and help the programs bounce back.

However, the media scrutiny that can occur in the aftermath of a major crisis could lead to the total demise of the program and even the organization.


On the other hand, resilient programs equally have their fair share of problems, but tend to identify and address them quickly so as not to destabilize program performance.

One of the lessons to be learned from programs and organizations that concentrate on building resilience is that leaders are able to see the big picture as well as have the capacity to concentrate on single operational issues. Leaders also tend to focus on the wide system and business environment while dealing with their own ideas and concerns.

If programs are to succeed, their leaders must possess the following traits:


Leaders in error-critical programs have to read and make sense of many complex situations occurring simultaneously, including those that have not occurred before and might have been thought unimaginable. As a result, they take nothing for granted, purposefully seeking out and assessing anomalies, errors and impending problems—even those that are subtle or hidden. They take seriously the things that people usually do not want to notice, surfacing and sharing their own concerns and striving to create an environment where their people feel safe to do the same.

img Join the discussion at

In response to Geoff Mattie's post, “Who's Really the Project Lead?” Erin Lynn Young commented, “I love user experience design and strategy—and one reason I left a past job was because there weren't project managers. I was responsible for planning the project—so the bigger the project, the bigger the project planning. The bigger the planning, the less time I had for other things. The result? The bigger the project, the less strategy we applied to the project!”


Having developed an information-rich environment, program leaders develop a good grasp of the current “health” of the system by turning data into intelligence through the identification of patterns and trends.

They often compare current events with past learning in an attempt to predict future outcomes. Yet they are reluctant to oversimplify interpretations and are wary of taking information out of context. They use the knowledge gained to allocate resources flexibly and to develop adaptable plans and strategies to meet changing circumstances. They shape and share the big picture proactively with all stakeholders.


Where possible, leaders create space to reflect, conceptualize and visualize the effects and consequences of their decisions before taking action. They know that unexpected problems will arise to which the rulebook does not apply. By involving others and sharing responsibility for the problem with people at all levels of the program, leaders distribute responsibility and decision-making authority to those with the appropriate expertise and knowledge, depending on the nature of the problem. Offline training and rehearsals are given high priority, and significant attention is paid to scenario-planning to prepare for unusual or rare contingencies. These also help to identify thresholds and escalation points at which decision-making will pass upwards or to those with expertise.


Program leaders recognize the importance of making timely interventions when problems are identified. They take responsibility and encourage others to do the same—“the buck stops everywhere.” They see plans through to completion.

However, they realize that plans may endanger people if they are followed blindly and rigidly. They worry about mindlessness as a consequence of automatic, habitual behaviors and repetitive tasks. Adaptation, improvisation and creative solutions to unpredictable challenges are all encouraged.

They defer to those with operational expertise to make quick decisions and take corrective action when unexpected situations arise.

By managing the unexpected in an organization's project portfolio, a leader can use adversity as a spring-board for high performance in future programs. PM


David Denyer, PhD, is a professor of organizational learning and change at Cranfield University School of Management, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England.


Elmar Kutsch, PhD, is a program and project management lecturer at Cranfield University.



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