Project Psychology

Project Psychology

I’m starting to work with two new projects. Each project brings together a number of organizations, with a common aim, an agreement to try changes and share lessons, and a belief that they can make substantial progress in 12 months.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve been involved in about a dozen of this kind of project, derived from the design proposed by colleagues at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and known as a Breakthrough Collaborative.

In every collaborative project, most of the participating teams start out with optimism even though change is hard for individuals and hard for organizations. The challenge of project leaders is to help the teams temper unrealistic optimism through project structure.

Kelly McGonigal wrote a popular psychology book in 2012 (The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What you Can Do to Get More of It, Avery: New York, ); she describes the situation for individuals who want to change habits. Her summary seems to apply to organizations, too:

“Vowing to change fills us with hope. We love to imagine how the change will transform our lives, and we fantasize about the person we will become. Research shows that deciding to start a diet makes people feel stronger, and planning to exercise makes people feel taller…The bigger the goal, the bigger the burst of hope. And so when we decide to change, it’s tempting to give ourselves some very large assignments. Why set a modest goal when setting a gigantic goal will make us feel even better? Why start small when you can dream big?”

“Unfortunately, the promise of change—like the promise of reward and the promise of relief—rarely delivers what we’re expecting. Unrealistic optimism may make us feel good in the moment, but it sets us up to feel much worse later on. The decision to change is the ultimate in instant gratification—you get all the good feelings before anything’s been done. But the challenge of actually making a change can be a rude awakening, and the initial rewards are rarely as transformative as our most hopeful fantasies. As we face our first setbacks, the initial feel-good rush of deciding to change is replaced with disappointment and frustration. Failing to meet our expectations triggers the same old guilt, depression, and self-doubt, and the emotional payoff of vowing to change is gone. At this point, most people will abandon their efforts altogether. It’s only when we are feeling out of control and in need of another hit of hope that we’ll once again vow to change—and start the cycle all over.” (p. 152)

The inventors of the Breakthrough Collaborative designed multiple features to help teams succeed despite the common psychological issues McGonigal describes.

The Model for Improvement is one key feature. With the project aim in mind, the inventors advise teams to start with very small tests, carried out with curiosity. Teams should invite the people who might be affected by the change to take part in the tests. The invitation to test recognizes attachment to current practice and asks only willingness to try: “if the idea really doesn’t work out, we can always go back to doing things the old way.”

Very small tests—attempting a change in minutes or at most a few hours—anchor teams in reality while bounding the consequences of failure. Very small tests, in the service of the larger aim, are a bridge between the initial hope for transformation and the challenge of actually making changes that stick.

Teaching Smart People How to Fail

Teaching Smart People How to Fail

Self-Control For Individuals and Teams