In corporate America this is ever so present with projects that fail, and usually spectacularly. You know the projects/initiatives/corporate mandates I'm talking about -- the ones where everyone is having hall conversations about how there is no way project X is going to come in on time, let alone even close to the original budget and likely won't solve the underlying unmet need of its intended audience. Over-promising and under-delivering.
Failure in and of itself isn't a bad thing -- in fact when you "fail fast" you achieve actual agility. Practice and experience controlled failure and you achieve fault-tolerance.
Failure to manage expectations on the other hand, comes down to two, almost diametrically opposed forces at work: Faith, or blind hopeful optimism versus sheer incompetence. I say almost opposed because you'll frequently find both of these qualities in the same person. It is most dangerous when that person is in a leadership role. Let me explain.
As human's we have a unlimited capacity for self-delusion. The path to ruin starts with a fundamental need to be "right" and almost always begins with the pattern of behavior called "seeking confirming evidence." We gather "success stories" about other people in what we think are similar situations and hold them up as iconic examples of why we do or should do X. In corporate America, if the evidence can't be found, it's invented -- created out of thin air. Two examples from a recent trip I made through a Fortune 500 medical device manufacturer.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda
Jon* was a starry-eyed visionary executive -- at least that's how he saw himself. He probably had a semi permanent shrine to Steve Jobs somewhere, if not physically, mentally in the big mansion he believed he would own someday. Jon was desperate to be "right" -- when his closest lieutenants, the ones that weren't officious sycophants, disagreed with the direction he was taking the division, what did Jon do? He hired an outside consulting firm to help validate his beliefs. When this highly respected Bay-area ideation firm didn't shower Jon with kudo's and high-fives, thus depriving him of his richly deserved "atta-boy" pats on the back from his boss, what did Jon do next? He hired another firm to get a second opinion.
This second firm dispensed the glowing adoration Jon craved so much to the point where this companies CEO would jet around the globe with Jon to gather user stories that helped confirm Jon's beliefs. However, when that firms independent survey's came back negative, Jon decided to do his own survey of company clients to get the word from them directly. Third times a charm, right? Fortunately by this point Jon had spent so much money and wasted so much time that baseline projects were slipping because of resource constraints and his new manager wanted to know why.
In the end, the results of this third survey yielded the same results that everyone internally had been trying to tell Jon since day one: its a bad idea! When word got out that their top customers not only didn't want what Jon thought they wanted, but would actually stop buying any product if Jons change in service model went through, the division president stripped him of title, budget, and resources. Rumor has it he had to be told three times by the division president that he was "being redirected" before the exasperated boss told Jon to "put a bullet in it."
To this day Jon thinks that it had nothing to do with the vision, it was the teams fault for not explaining it well enough. Last I heard Jon is being "managed out" -- falling from being a Division VP to a "sole contributor" -- I'm sure they are hoping he'll quit since firing him for arrogance and incompetence is harder than it sounds.
All because of a desperate need to be right, instead of passionate need to do right.
Sometimes, Where There is Smoke, There are Mirrors
This is the story of justification after the fact. One of the divisions had invested heavily into a technology believed to be a veritable gold mine that would set fire to product development. After nearly 5 years of upgrades and enhancements, and day long training sessions to use the tool, its adoption rate and usage was a tiny fraction of the number of seat licenses that had been purchased.
When it was proposed that a fresh look at collaboration tools be kicked off, the team responsible for managing this monstrosity immediately joined in the fray to help with "lessons learned" -- every new potential system that was up for serious consideration, somehow this old tool magically "does that and more", or "its coming in the next version." It really started to make me wonder if my fellow team mates weren't actually paid shills by the vendor. Anyway, in order to try and build more excitement the team started sending out weekly "success stories" of how the tool had miraculously delivered on its promise.
When the team failed to sway anyone's opinion, their management proposed hiring an outside consultant to come in and help with the assessment. It took all of about 10 minutes to figure out that the consultant had been constrained to help justify the sunk-cost project, and that there was in fact going to be no independent evaluation. I politely withdrew from any sponsorship of the project at this point. The last I heard, the only people excited about the consultants findings are the people that hired him. Everyone else has pretty much checked out and given up on the idea that any real change can happen.
The fastest way to disenfranchise your team is to pretend to be transparent. Not every sign of smoke means fire. Unless you're talking about what management is smoking in which case they ought to be fired.
The common playbook in corporate America is that when management doesn't like the answer they are getting (from their own highly qualified, talented people inside the company who are presumably motivated by the same desire to do the right thing), they go outside to find someone to tell them what they want to hear. Personally I think this is grounds for a demotion in rank, since it calls into question their sense of fidelity, not to mention just basic good judgment. It shows that they are not working from a common goal or need, but rather from a personal hidden agenda to be vindicated. To be right.
In other words, they believe that the organization exists to serve themselves instead of understanding they serve the organization.
Today's Big Idea: Things that make you say WTF!?! about your job are probably good indicators that something is about to fail.
Like a good used car salesman once said, "If you get the customer to ask the right questions, the answers are easy!" If you can't get your management to ask better questions, politely ask to be taken off those projects that are death marches and watch from the sidelines. In these cases its better for your sanity to be a spectator than one of the champions on the field when the lions are set loose or the buzzards come in after to pick the remains.