Magical Thinking Does Not Lead to Project Success

Last updated on December 14th, 2021 at 8:26 am by Timothy Cooper


My Definition: Magical Thinking

  1. The belief that despite any rational thought or a review of previous experience everything is going to work out on its own
  2. Decoupling of cause and effect such that desired results occur spontaneously

Or to stretch sports optimism: Your team is down by 10 runs at the top of the ninth inning, but still believing that it’s time for some lucky breaks and with a couple of good hits this game could be yours.  Unfortunately, your team hasn’t hit a thing all night.

Magic Doesn’t Happen

A project of any sort doesn’t suddenly find its footing and turn into an overnight success when it has been stumbling from one setback to another.  Problems always have a root cause when examined closely enough and it’s rare for problems to resolve themselves.  If your timeline is shot and you keeping missing milestones no amount of will power is going to make up the lost time and churn out quality deliverables.

Call it what you want: wishful thinking, magical thinking, hoping that everything turns out OK, thinking that it’s finally time for some good luck.  None of this helps, more likely you’re in denial.

The Road to Reality

Project success stems from an understanding within the team that their contributions make a difference and – perhaps more importantly – an absence of effort is drain on everyone else.  Projects are a team endeavor and hoping that someone else is picking up the slack for you does a disservice to your colleagues.

Also teams are very perceptive organisms.  They sense who has their head in the game, who is trying (and maybe not succeeding), who is coasting and who is riding on the backs of others.  The latter usually leads to a level of distrust and resentment which is never good.  So how do you overcome this?

People, Skills and Chemistry

Team dynamics are tricky things: I’ve been on teams where we all speak the same language but we don’t communicate, and I’ve been on teams where flow happens.  The former makes everything difficult, the latter makes many things so much easier.   People make the difference. There are tangibles: hard skills in specific areas – business process, configuration, development, infrastructure; there is experience – previous projects of similar scale and complexity; and then there are the intangibles of work styles, interpersonal chemistry.  You want all of these, but you need a mechanism to make them work together.  You need a structure that ensures these elements come together.

The Role of Methodology

A methodology can be viewed as an approach or a framework for getting things done with checkpoints along the way to identify whether progress is being made as expected or whether course corrections are required.  It is a device to harness and direct actions. However, to paraphrase, methodologies come and methodologies go, and different ones are perceived to bring different (dis)advantages.  Waterfall methodologies were in vogue, e.g. SAP’s ASAP, and Agile has its proponents.  SAP Activate now blends waterfall and Agile into one approach where project activities are executed in a manner to deliver results quickly.

Your methodology describes the activities, the deliverables, the checkpoints, the gate criteria for progression and your acceptance criteria.  These all sound great in an ivory tower and anyone who has worked on a project knows the reality of the difference between theory and practice:  one is easy, the other hard.  Bringing real world experience to bear within a methodology framework increases the likelihood of success and it requires attention to detail.  Clichés are usually true for a reason and in this case the devil is in the details: projects are fraught with difficulty and a major part of the work is finding and addressing the details.  Details don’t volunteer themselves and they don’t advertise themselves.  This is where team chemistry, persistence, curious minds, experience and a structured methodology pay off.  Without these elements you can end up crossing your fingers and hoping for the best instead of having confidence that your team and your project has uncovered big and small rocks and knows how to deal with them.

One of your biggest risks is tripping over the unexpected.  If your project keeps running into the unexpected you probably need some sort of review to identify the root cause.  Hoping the problem goes away on its own is not a solution and gets into the realm of magical thinking.

The Antidote to Magical Thinking

You can tell from my comments that I’m an advocate of hard work, rational thought and project management.  In my day to day project work I strive to avoid low level magical thinking.  For example, any kind of discussion that generates action items needs to assign accountability to a named individual for the work.  Assuming that the work will be done without an assignment is a low grade of magical thinking.

Avoidance at a low level means it doesn’t happen at a higher and more damaging aggregate level.  We should be alert constantly for situations where we unwittingly assume that something will get done somehow because the universe is being kind today.

If there’s an antidote to magical thinking it’s thoroughness and closing the loop on accountability for deliverables and deadlines.  Surround yourself with team members who operate this way and you can say goodbye to magical thinking.

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