Decisions taken in the heat of emotion can come back and bite you!


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I suggest that whilst you certainly want everyone working in your organization to be emotionally invested in what they are doing, you nevertheless want them to be using their head and not their heart when it comes to decisions. This cautionary tale from Lev Virine and Michael Trumper’s award-winning book, ProjectThink: Why Good Managers Make Poor Project Choices illustrates the point very effectively.

9781409454984[1]Pavel I was a Russian emperor from 1796 to 1801 and often made emotional choices. His foul moods and emotional nature is the stuff of legend. One day, as was the case on most days, he woke up in a bad mood. As he stood in his bedroom, he looked out of the window with a view of the palace ground. As he surveyed his ground, he happened to spot a particularly unfortunate fellow, “Look at that person. He dares to walk near the palace without showing any sign of respect, he should at least take off his hat,” he pointed out to a few of his courtiers who were standing attentively about his royal person, looking for any chance to curry favor as was their custom. Upon hearing this, his attendants with intimate knowledge of Pavel’s emotional character, instantly issued the emperor’s decree that any and all subjects who passed by a palace must take off their hat in a show of respect to their sovereign. As often happens in project management, publishing edicts or regulations and actually getting everyone to follow them are two completely different things. To ensure everyone followed the new decree, the emperor’s courtiers tasked the police with enforcing it, which they did with stern language and judicious use of fists, boots, and whatever else brought about the desired behavior.

After a few months, the new project was deemed a complete success. Doffing their hats as a show of respect became a habit for the locals. As things would have it, Pavel was again looking out of his windows, this time in a better mood. He happened to see one of his subjects removing his hat as he walked by the palace; puzzled since this seemed to be unusual behavior, he turned to his courtiers, “How strange,” he observed, “I just saw someone take off their hat as they walked by, has spring arrived early?” “But it is according to your wishes, sire,” they replied. “I did not say such a thing,” said Pavel. Typically, like many of us, Pavel does not have a good memory of decisions made when we are emotional; often we cannot remember them at all. With this new understanding of their ruler’s wishes, his underlings quickly set out to repeal the previous decree, but, predictably, undoing the decree proved as difficult as imposing it in the first place and the policemen were again sent out to enforce the new/old regulation: everyone must now keep their hat on as they passed by the palace.

Many project managers follow in Pavel’s footsteps and make emotional decisions. If something is wrong with a project, instead of taking the time to carefully analyze the underlying cause, they prefer to act quickly. Often applying the scattershot technique when applying blame, if you throw enough around, some of it will stick. Bugs in the software? It is QA’s fault. If they didn’t persist in testing so much, there would not be as many bugs in the code. If we reduce QA resources, we will have fewer issues to fix and we can meet our product launch date. Then they ask themselves why they did not come up with this simple, cost-saving solution before.

Here is a true story. A Canadian high-tech company designed small TV sets to be installed in front of each exercise machine in fitness clubs. Each set had a screen and keypad to change channels, volume and so on. Originally, all the keypads were supposed to use bubbly buttons, sticking out from the keypad. One day the company CEO, a businessman, not a project manager or hardware engineer, demonstrated the device to somebody very influential in the fitness industry. This person had read somewhere about an experiment that demonstrated that bubbly buttons were less durable than flat buttons. Apparently, somebody had pressed on a bubbly button 1 million times and it stopped working and, in addition, made the claim that flat buttons were more durable. On that same day, the CEO went back to his office and requested a redesign of the keypad with flat buttons. Interestingly, nobody, including the CEO and engineers, knew anything about the actual experiment with the 1 million button clicks. But it was the CEO’s order and the engineers started the new development. Later on, when the whole project was delayed, the CEO discovered that the reason was his own request to redesign a keypad. Similarly to Emperor Pavel I, the CEO was quite surprised. He asked why the engineers did not provide him with cost and duration estimates. As it happens, the CEO was told that the redesign and changing of suppliers would mean changes to the project cost and schedule. But he was so emotional on that day that he was unable to use or recall any of the advice or estimates any of his project team had provided.

If you find that people around you are making decisions that seem stupid, irrational, counterproductive (you name it), there is a good chance that it is because of their emotions. Getting angry with them will not help and may exacerbate the issue. Remember that, given time, their emotions will return to a normal state and at that time they may see in retrospect that their actions were rash and they have the option to change their decisions.

Source: ProjectThink by Lev Virine and Michael Trumper 2013, Gower Publishing, Farnham. Winner of the 2014 PMI David Cleland Literature Award.
Visit to read Lev and Michael’s book in its entirety and to share your stories about and techniques for good decision-making.


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