Good Soldier Syndrome: A Can-do Attitude Can Kill Your Project
(Or why my college dates would make the best project managers)

By Doug DeCarlo

Rarely a week goes by on most projects where our ability to act assertively is not challenged. This is especially true when it comes to handling change requests that impact the project schedule, resources and/or scope.

Take this example. The sponsor of FasTrak -- the new hi-tech sneaker project -- is a manager who outranks you by three levels. She invites you into her office and asks that your team incorporate a new feature into the sneaker, one that that's sure to leave the competition (and you) in the dust. . It's a ThickOmeter, a digital communication device that will tell the runner how much tread remains on the sole of the running shoe while simultaneously launching an e-mail that alerts the runner to the address of the nearest FasTrak shoe outlet. Wow!

The price of nice: Accepting the insurmountable opportunity
A can-do attitude can do you in.

When the project sponsor says, "Jump!" the good soldier says "How high?" on the way up. After all, we want to be team players. Get ahead in the organization. Be known as a "can-do" person. Not get fired.

Call it Good Soldier Syndrome. It's one the biggest, silent killers of projects. It means being a people pleaser, satisfying someone else's needs at our own expense. Being an order taker who is ready and willing to follow instructions or make commitments and set aside his personal feelings, thoughts or needs. Self-sacrifice, in a word.

When you commit to something you (or the team) cannot handle, even if you succeed by heroic efforts to accomplish the feat, the expectation is now set that you can be counted upon to keep pulling off small miracles. So, more work is handed to you. But this is a downward spiral. The pattern of escalating self-sacrifice leads to loss of self-esteem. Because as you take on more work, you eventually do a poor job, which makes you want to work that much harder, leading to burnout, even poorer results which reinforces your lowered self-esteem. You may even get fired for lack of performance, which paradoxically, is just what you wanted to avoid in the first place.

And as a business proposition, saying "yes" when we need to say "no" puts the organization and profits at risk.

Passive, Aggressive and Assertive Behavior

Possible Responses to the ThickOmeter Request
Passive Behavior
Self-abuse: You win, I lose.
Aggressive Behavior
(Abuse of others: I win, you lose.)
Assertive Behavior
(Mutual respect: for myself and others)
Yes, sir. Great idea. Wow. Let's go with it.Shove it. We've been barraged constantly with your change requests throughout the entire project. Your committee continues to change direction and to be insensitive to the negative impacts these last minute requests are creating.Interesting idea. Right now, we're spread thin and other projects are at risk. Once I know the impact this will have on our schedule and budget, I'll get back to you with options and a recommendation for your final decision. I'll need 48 hours to do this.

How to be assertive: Get "Nohow"

You can be a certified project management professional (PMP®) and hold a Ph.D. in project management. But unless you know how to say no, it's all for naught.

Here are the steps followed by the most effective project leaders and team members.
  • Confirm the request by playing it back in your words

  • Take the time (if you need it) to analyze the impact

  • Return with fact-based information
    It can be done. It will add $500,000 to the project cost, take about 4 more months longer to complete, and add $12.00. to the retail price of the shoe. We won't be able to tell if the ThickOmeter really works until after the testing is completed, about two months from now. It will also cause us to delay by 4 months the start of the Fleetfoot project.

  • Have alternatives and make a recommendation
    An option would be to do minimal testing and save two months. That would raise the risk factor to about 50% where at least one out of 10 pairs sold will be returned for malfunction. If you believe the business case justifies this, we can move ahead.

    Or, we could add the ThickOmeter to the next release of the shoe when we can do it more justice. That's our recommendation.

  • Affirm your commitment
    We want the FasTrak Project to be a success. The team looks forward to working on the next release.

  • Accept the request (if all else fails)
    OK. We'll add the ThickOmeter with your understanding of its impact on the project schedule, cost, risk, retail pricing of the shoe and the delayed start on the Fleetfoot project.

Now that's "Nohow." That's why I believe the women I dated in college would make the best project managers today. They always knew how and when to say "No."

eXtremely yours,


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