Project Train Wreck

This summer I was on a train wreck of a project. This is normal from time to time but disconcerting especially when it is beyond our control.  Coming from the United States my cultural bias is to look past the failure and onto future successes – a great strategy when you are young. But as you live longer, the premonition of the pending “wreck” comes earlier and earlier. We are forced to face that we are smaller than we think and largely helpless.  Further as we mature and grow older, the organizations we work in don’t.  Organizations have relatively the same experience year over year as they gain the energy of the young and release the wisdom of the old.  So after this “wreak” I decided to do the responsible and adult thing. I sat down, mused over the last couple months, and did the hard work of the serenity prayer (

This is not easy thing to do coming from my culture. In fact it took a few “wrecks” to prompt my introspection. You see the United States is only a few hundred years old and much like a teenager we are light on experience and full of energy and creativity.   ( Getting us to fight our collective ADHD/OCD/bipolar/autism, sit down in one place with our thoughts and feeling, and meditate isn’t easy when things are pleasant. Like the typical teenager, we hate and deny our failures. I say “we” because as globalization takes hold, the personality of the capitalism stance and the United States is pervading business.  This persona demonizes the devil as seen in my own religion Christianity’s stance which separates “bad things” from God/reality. As a result we struggle with accepting failure and receiving life’s lessons from the Saturnine side of God. (See  Yet a weakness is simply the flip side of a strength. So the starting point to applying this new teenager persona is self-awareness along with self-acceptance. .. which bring us back to my “train wreck.”

It was the personalities involved that betrayed the eventual outcome. Before I even landed in Jamaica I knew that the Islander personality mixed with a conservative financial client and even more conservative consulting agency would result in catastrophic failure unless radical self introspection was done by both the stakeholders and participants involved.  Within minutes in the first meeting thanks to the statistical law of large numbers from a small sampling of data I knew the bigger picture. (  I knew not only would the project fail but that they would not learn from their failure. Specifically, they talked about change, but addressed only desired outcomes, not any tangible change in approach. Though acknowledging the pain, no one was taking ownership for their part in it. The solution they thought was working faster, longer, and harder. Einstein’s famous quote was lost on them –  In short, the players were too ungrounded and in denial of reality to talk about the painful issues and what they meant. Further even if they did discuss these, the layers of bureaucracy separated the pain from the sponsors where the pain could affect real change and do some good.  The bottom line: the deep grounded acknowledgement of the pain and their part in it wasn’t there much less the necessary changes in behavior and action to create a different outcome for this third iteration of the same project.

The situation is reminiscent of what we see in United States politics today. Obama swept in after the train wreck of the Bush presidency on a platform of change.  On global front trust had been lost. United States no longer held the high moral ground after: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, drone attacks, and erosion of the United States currency. Promises in outcome were made, desires stated, but the reality of sitting down, accepting this is a democracy, and doing the hard work never happened. There was no introspection much less compromise. Instead of rebuilding trust, distrust outside now infected the inside. Partisan politics got worse, not better.  Both trust and productivity in Government are at an all time low. The non-acceptance of the devil within, like a cancer, was devouring ourselves from the inside out (  This denial and non acceptance has infused even deeper, inserting itself into our personal lives.  The recent explosion of “The Secret” and its many spin offs in the New Age arena shows this.  The Secret is a short film that basically promotes whatever you believe will become – so think and feel only positive thoughts. Sure positive thoughts when possible are great but one definition of truth is: “things that exist even when you don’t believe them.”  When you refuse to listen to reality except through a rosy lens, the greatest instrument of learning – suffering cannot be received. Think about it. When do you mature – during good times when everything goes right, or when we struggle and suffer and as a result change your thoughts, behaviors and actions?  The good news is it looks like we have only one more train wreak or two before real change can happen. The United States is almost at a place of acceptance as it currently wrestles between denial and anger in the five stages of grief (

This is all fine and good but what is a consultant to do in a situation where they know they can only fail?  Should they just sit there and take it? My take away is that it depends. Specifically, it depends on the consultant themselves and their life path.  Like the facets of God/life these can be diametrically opposed. For example, on my last “wreck” before Jamaica I had thought I learned my lesson. A CA consultant told me he chose never to work on a failing project. He presented several good arguments about reputation, working conditions, and impact to future work. Overall he was happier and led a content, non contentious life. He was true to his word and left after the second week. I thought I had learned my lesson then.  Going forward I chose to leave projects where I could. But as the recession dragged on, budgets got tighter, and the moral direction of the country stymied into cancerous infighting, I found myself dragged back into train wrecks with no alternatives.  So as life does it hit me with the same issue again. This time I was smacked a bit harder – as happens with any Saturnine lesson I refuse to listen to.  So as I sat down this time I came to a place of acceptance rather than denial and asked myself the question – why?

What was the lesson I was here to learn?  And unlike the previous “wreck”, I was at a place this time where I could hear and learn. Like most lessons in life the answer I received was unexpected.  It was not about what I wanted, but about what life wanted or rather demanded of me. The first epiphany hit on the home front. For three years I had been unschooling myself in western ways, working with alternative medicine and curing my son of autism. We were able to get him from no eye contact to kindergarten in three years. But with all the cures many of the emotional and social issues lingered.  As I fought issues at work I noticed many of his tendencies mirrored my own. The epiphany struck as I was complaining to my wife how no one understood him; yet I sensed, felt and often thought as he did when stressed.  Suddenly it dawned on me. If he was classified as autistic and I was sensing, feeling, and thinking the same way he was, I was by definition autistic as well.  Autism had to be more than a disease. It wasn’t something to simply fix.  Rather the condition is more akin to a high power race car.  While the autistic is much more sensitive to bad “food” and environment as well as not engineered to solely roam around suburban streets, on the flip side the autistic can deliver high performance at a moment’s notice and do so for extended periods of time.

The second epiphany hit as I sat down and started to write this article.  It was equally as troubling and unexpected as the first epiphany. As much as I don’t like it, I did exactly what I was supposed to do in the “wreck.” Whether conscious or unconscious, I chose this contentious life. I am to enter the train wreck as it happens and try to make the lives involved better or assist in their learning.  Further, I cannot learn for the organization and people I mentor. They have their own lives to live, collect their own experiences, and pick up from this their own lessons meant for them. Along the way they teach me as well. And though I am more sensitive to emotional stressors due to autism, it makes me perfect to assist at these times. I am wired to think quickly and pick up the subtle emotional queues.  So as much as I’d like to follow the lead of the CA consultant who pursues only successful projects and avoids the stress of failing projects and reaps the praise and rewards by jumping on the band wagon of rising stars, that is not who I am or who I came here to do.  I don’t like it and have resisted accepting it, but as I mentioned before one definition of truth is: “things that you don’t believe but still are.”  In retrospect, the autism has counseled me well through my career among 50 fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and military projects.

Ten years prior I read a quote at my father’s funeral and I realized it applied to me as well.

“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy course; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt from “Citizenship in a Republic” speech,

delivered at the Sorbonne 23 April 1910.

One Response to “When projects fail…”

  1. Wow! Well said. I especially love the Roosevelt quote at the end.

    There’s some quote that escapes me (French author I think, but I don’t remember) that goes something like this:
    “You don’t know your limits until you have pushed beyond them.”

    That said, there is no limit to corporate idiocy.

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