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How to avoid fatal fixations

By Craig Nowlan

A recent episode of TV-series Air Crash Investigation featured a fascinating story about a crash that occurred because the pilots were fixated on a relatively trivial issue, and blinkered to a dangerous situation unfolding around them.  They had noticed that a landing gear light on the instrument panel that was not working correctly, and while fiddling with it they failed to notice that the plane was descending into the ground.  The subsequent crash destroyed the plane (which was in perfect working order, except for a faulty light on the instrument panel), and killed everyone on board.

This episode got me thinking how with managing projects, we can sometimes become “fixated” on one particular area to the detriment of all others.   In my own experience, I can think of projects where:

  • A fixation on meeting a milestone date led to poor quality, and failure to achieve all the expected or intended benefits
  • A fixation on producing a “perfect” solution led to budget blow-out and missed dates and opportunities  (for an extreme example of this, read the horror story of Duke Nukem. )
  • A fixation on managing small details to the detriment of the overall direction and benefits of the project
  • A fixation on planning to the detriment of execution
  • Fixating on things that are easy to manage, or within your skill-set, and ignoring the difficult/real problems.
  • Fixating on the solution to the detriment of the stakeholders.


Of course, the real challenge of project management is to  juggle all of the aspects above, and to give them all the appropriate amount of attention.  This is one of the advantages of methodologies like Prince2 and Project Management Institute (PMI)  – they encourage a broader view across all aspects that can be important for a successful project.

And that is another aspect of fixation – what is important is not always obvious, and less so when all attention is on a single thing.  It wasn’t obvious to the pilots they were descending into the ground, but it was the most important thing they needed to know.  So how can we as project management professionals avoid being blinkered like this on the projects we work on, and preventing crash and burn outcomes?  Here are some suggestions that might help:

  1. Have a co-pilot: Having somebody else to read, review and challenge our thinking about a project brings a fresh perspective, and reduces the risk of being blinkered.  This is why publishing status reports to a central repository and consolidating project metrics can be a good idea – it encourages healthy discussion and wider perspectives.  There are many tools that can assist with this process.
  2. Challenge your own assumptions / biases: Just because project A ran fine when we did “X”, is no guarantee that with a different team, different challenge, that doing “X” will automatically be successful.  Challenging your own thinking is hard, because it moves you out a comfort zone, but it is sometimes the only way to remove the blinkers and see some of the important stuff you may have been missing before.
  3. Have a check-list: We sometimes take for granted that we “know” all the things we need to do, but this can lead to complacency and missing what’s important.   How about a tick-list that forces some consideration about all the important things every single week of the project?  Yes, a status report does bring some of these elements together, but there are many other areas that need consideration that never make it onto a status report.   Have you checked in with the sponsor lately?  Have you verified that all invoices against the project are captured?    Have you got the project team’s upcoming leave schedule?  Are you on track to deliver the benefits considering that important design change you made last week?
  4. Ask for help: All project managers have at one time felt frustrated with a project team because they have been flogging a dead horse before admitting defeat and asking for help, after chewing through budget and time.   But are we as project managers at times also guilty of the same by not asking for help ourselves?  Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes with a colleague, or a project sponsor or owner, and the blinkers are removed and the important stuff becomes “obvious”.
  5. Don’t “paint by numbers”:  If project management was as simple as just following a series of steps repeatedly, we would all have been out of a job long ago.  There are very few human endeavours that are “paint by numbers”.  Ask anyone who has ever done house renovations, or raised children.
  6. Maintain “situational awareness”:   Even when focused on one item, there are some things that should always be in your peripheral vision.  Things like the project benefits.  The stakeholder’s expectations.  The budget.  The schedule.  The deliverables.  The risks.
  7. Prioritise your time: If the project is running well against budget, don’t spend a huge amount of time doing cost analysis.  If the project is running to schedule, don’t spend a huge amount of time on planning and critical path analysis.  If there are few issues, don’t spend large amounts of time managing the issue register.   This will free up time and help prevent being blinkered to what really does need attention that you might have missed if you didn’t have the time.


I trust these ideas have given you some food for thought, and look forward to your comments and feedback.

Craig Nowlan is Practice Manager, Enterprise Project Management at Montage Professional Services.

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