Questions to avoid “approval spin”

Children’s tops spin well.  But when the spin is spent they fall over.  Too many projects go the same way.  Estimates and schedule forecasts are the subject of “spin” to match the business case and receive approval.  This might be intentional or unintentional.  With intent, the one seeking approval wants the approval but knows their numbers are probably not accurate.  When the spin is unintentional, often, confirmation bias plays a role in that the organization’s management really wants to do the project and is looking for evidence to confirm that they can do it within the constraints of the business case.  Of course, the third option is that there is not even a solid business case for the project at all but that goes beyond the realm of spin and into mismanagement.

In order to avoid spin, ask the following questions and dig in to find solid, evidence-based answers:

1.  What are the assumptions included in your business case relating to project justification, scope, estimate, and schedule?  Follow-ups include:

  • Do you understand all of these assumptions?
  • Have assumptions, sometimes in the form of caveats or boundary conditions to estimates and schedules, made it all the way to the decision-making level?  Many times they are present in the actual act of estimating but get dropped off the reporting as it moves through the layers of an organization.
  • Are there any hidden or unidentified assumptions that are critical for success?
  • Are there implied assumptions that must be true for the project to be successful but which are not certain and have not been questioned?

2.  How sensitive is your decision to changes in any one (or, most likely, more than one) of these?

3.  How quickly can you discover whether your assumptions are valid?  Schedule a decision point and plan to make a tough decision if needed.

4.  What is your walk-away number for your project?  Ensure that you know at what point it is not worth it to continue this project based on your business case justification.

5.  Does everybody involved in this process share the same agenda?

  • How committed is everybody to the organization’s overall goals?
  • Does everybody understand the full ramifications if this project is tried and is not successful?
  • Is everybody trying to contribute to a rational, objective decision?
  • Can anybody still win if the project turns out to be a loss?

If you approve a project based on the way it’s spun, you are likely to be unsuccessful!  Make sure you are asking the tough, right questions about your project.  At a high level, these are some of them, but it can also help to have an objective and experienced team member capable of asking more detailed questions and digging more deeply for answers.  If you need help, reach out to me.