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The Power of Negative Thinking

By ILX Team | 3 July 2017

Nobody wants the responsibility of being negative. However, there are times where you have to expect the worst. Successful projects need balance, which includes things like executive sponsor engagement and team autonomy. It also includes a balance of optimism and risk awareness. Sometimes, the naysayer can be the project’s best friend.

Negativity prepares for the worst

The Olympics are an expensive and ambitious project, where a lot can go wrong. When the Winter Olympics were announced for Vancouver, at least snowy weather seemed to be a given. The Vancouver Organizing Committee wasn’t so optimistic. They planned for a lack of snow by carting it from other mountains, stockpiling man-made snow and adding wood forms and straw. Their concerns were well-founded. But by planning for the worst, the Winter Olympics had ample snow for lower altitudes.

Risk management: positive results from negative thinking

Nobody wants a pessimistic corporate culture. However, pre-mortems, or imagining how a project could fail, make it easier to mitigate risks. In April 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers surveyed corporate officers across 80 different countries. 63% agreed that moving risk management to the first line makes companies more agile. In other words, early risk management and agility go hand-in-hand.

Lessons from Lincoln

Negativity might be the perfect antidote to groupthink. Doris Kearns Goodwin claims in her book Team of Rivals that Abraham Lincoln’s government benefited from internal opposition. A room full of Lincoln’s former rivals would thoroughly debate his ideas. Lincoln historian Matthew Pinsker largely disagrees with how well this worked. Maybe the solution is a project environment where team members oppose plans for the sake of the project and not for their own gain, as many of Lincoln’s cabinet members did.

How to create a team of rivals

How can a project or programme manager achieve what’s called adversarial collaboration? Research scientist Gary Klein proposed this premortem technique, “We’re looking in a crystal ball, and this project has failed; it’s a fiasco. Now, everybody, take two minutes and write down all the reasons why you think the project failed.”

Another idea is to elect a devil’s advocate at the beginning of every meeting. Rotate or randomise this role to prevent resentment. With these techniques, you can have a team of agreeable people who will also be more honest, express new ideas and expose risks early on.

Getting the balance right

It’s easy for managers to go too negative and alienate team members. Worse is when they punish failures, which discourages team members from reporting issues early. That’s why PRINCE2, for example, has a principle of learning from mistakes.

As with anything in project management, the environment is key. Talent Economy’s Lauren Dixon asked professor Rebecca Mitchell, director of Health Services Research and Innovation Centre at University of Newcastle in Australia, about this. Mitchell supports negative moods in complacent teams and environments. However, she warned that “in teams that are engaged in debate and in which a diversity of views are raised and discussed, negative mood can be dysfunctional.” Negativity can make stakeholder think a project’s in a worse state than it actually is.

Negative thinking is a tool, not a doctrine. Like a cost forecast or lesson log, this tool could be the difference maker in a project. There are best practices that can teach you how to account for risk and be negative in a positive way. Management of Risk (M_o_R) provides a generic standard that can work with any project management framework. To find out more about it or other courses, feel free to contact us here.

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