New Projects and “Informed Pessimism”

Ah, the thrill of a new project!

The anticipation of the finished perfection. The joy of planning, designing something that will make everything better. The ecstasy of uniformed optimism.

And then, the agony of informed pessimism sets in. No matter how many times you knit socks, or crochet hats, or design a process improvement project it’s always the same—dashed expectations and the crash of reality. It takes longer, is more difficult, meets more resistance than you anticipated. Is it just you? Are you worthless when it comes to estimation? Can you not be trusted with the simplest of project planning tasks?

No! Sorry to disappoint you, but this is normal.

Documented in 1979 by Don Kelly and Daryl Conner (Kelly, Don, and Daryl Conner, “The emotional cycle of change,” Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators (1979)), with a nod to On Death and Dying (Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, “On death and dying,” Southern Medical Journal 64.5 (1971): 641), this is the usual response to change, even when the change is anticipated to be positive.

Regardless of how many times we’ve been through it before, we know this time will be different. After all, we’ve learned so many lessons from what we’ve done before, how could we blow it this time? So we start each new project with a honeymoon period of “uninformed optimism.” Our goal is so noble, our intent so true, that how could anything stand in our way?

But then the yarn tangles, the design has a flaw, or some benighted soul dares to question the wisdom of our proposed change initiative, and—voilà—we become informed pessimists. And it doesn’t stop there. The resistance mounts and mounts until sometimes it seems an indomitable mountain.

Checking Out

When things get bad enough, sometimes we check out. Oh, we may say we’ll get back to the project “someday” as it sits among the other unfinished objects, or languishes at the bottom of our to-do list, but we’ve really had enough. That’s called “covert checking out” and is hard to confront and overcome because it’s not out in the open.

Or we may be overt about it and rip out our work or publicly renounce the initiative as being “misguided” or “not the right thing at the right time.” This, at least, can be addressed.

But in both cases the project is likely to die.

But what if … we persevered?

Beyond informed pessimism lies informed optimism. We reach the peak resistance and take a stand. We get buy-in from the stakeholders. We rewind the ball. We pick up the project and go forward, having looked at the work ahead honestly and weighed it against the benefits and found it worthy.

As we go forward knowing the odds we face, we come to believe in ourselves and the project again. This time our optimism isn’t born of ignorance, but of knowledge—of the obstacles and our resources. And if we continue long enough, we reach

Completion.

The finished object. The happy dance. The thing that has made everything better.

Informed Pessimism

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