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Pay Heed to the Four Horsemen of the Project Apocalypse!

The Book of Revelation describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who, based on a common interpretation, foretell the Last Judgment. Regardless of your religious beliefs or the extent of your theological knowledge, there are lessons which we can learn from these harbingers to avoid project failure.

The rider on the white horse is frequently identified as conquest, evil or, in mainstream pop culture as pestilence or plague. In the project context, a common infectious disease is chronic negativity.

Just like a contagion, it starts with a single dissatisfied team member or stakeholder who disagrees with the direction the project is taking, is disengaged or feels the project is doomed. While it is perfectly natural for folks to voice their concerns or to not always be positive, when this negativity becomes the new normal and nothing is done to manage the situation, other team members or stakeholders may interpret this lack of response as being an implicit validation of such behavior and it can spread. If swift action is not taken, the doom-and-gloom prognostications of Patient Zero can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your role as a project manager is not to stifle others views or emotions but it is to be aware of them, and if you recognize that someone is sucking the energy and life out of the team, it is your responsibility to respond in a timely but professional manner. Often times the individual may not be sufficiently self-aware to know how their behavior is being perceived or how it is affecting others. In such cases an objective, one-on-one discussion may be sufficient to turn things around. These situations can also be a good wakeup call for a project manager – if morale has been neglected, it might be the right time to re-energize the group with some team-building activities or other types of recognition.

Another lesson to be learned from this horseman relates to effective change management. Ignore or marginalize the few who are actively resisting planned changes at your project’s peril. It is very easy for unmanaged change resistance to spread from them to the masses and even to infect those who you felt were the best advocates for the planned changes.

The red horse’s rider is generally interpreted as representing war. With the uncertainty which is baked into the DNA of projects and the high likelihood of team members having differing personalities, values and styles, conflict is to be expected.

Conflict is recognized as being a valuable driver of creativity and innovation so the goal should never be to eliminate it. Unfortunately, weak project managers are uncomfortable managing conflict and find themselves letting prehistoric “fight or flight” emotions drive their responses by either being autocratic and forcing resolution or avoiding conflict in the hopes that it will just go away. In both cases the conflict will fester, furthering the gap between the involved parties and increasing the likelihood of other team members or stakeholders joining the battle.

Escalating conflict impacts team morale, reduces productivity through distraction, and provides highly visible evidence of a project manager’s poor judgment and competency, and can often result in their removal from the project. There is no single panacea for resolving conflict but it is critical that a project manager recognizes it and responds at the right time in the right way.

Famine is how the black horse’s rider is usually identified and an obvious analogy could be drawn to the under-resourcing of projects. Unfortunately, in many cases, a project manager has limited authority over resource commitments, especially when working in functional or matrix organizations.

A different interpretation of the third horseman could be ineffective communication with the team and with stakeholders. Some project managers hoard or act as the gatekeepers on information. In such cases, team members are starved for the knowledge they need to be as productive as possible and velocity suffers.

In other situations, the issue may not directly impact the team, but might relate to how well the project manager is keeping stakeholders apprised of project direction and status. This can translate into dissatisfaction, misalignment and perception becoming reality as these stakeholders begin to fear the worst.

A project manager should not overwhelm recipients with information – situational communication which meets the information processing needs of stakeholders is key. The focus of the project manager should be to reduce distance and latency in information getting to those who need it to get their job done.

Ignorance of these three riders increases the likelihood that your project will encounter the fourth and final horseman who sits astride a pale horse – Death!

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