Fear is good. Dread is not
I think that fear is good for any project team.
When I use the term fear, I do not mean the type of fear that someone may have for their personal wellbeing. Rather, I mean the type of fear that a team may have about not successfully delivering their project. This type of fear, which is about uncertainty of project outcomes, keeps people on their toes.
Dread is an altogether different animal from fear. Fear occurs when people don’t know what will happen. Dread is the feeling people have when they know something is going to happen – but they can do nothing about it.
Like many other people in England over the last month, I have been regularly setting my alarm for 4am and then tuning in to the Test Match Special coverage of the cricket series between Australia and England. This is a 5-match series in which Australia have easily won the first 3 matches – by 10 wickets, 120 runs and an innings & 41 runs respectively. This means the series has been won with two matches to play, and the Aussies have regained the Ashes urn.
Australian captain Steve Smith celebrates regaining the Ashes with Shaun Marsh and Mitch Marsh
Each time I‘ve turned my radio on; I have had a sense of dread. Whilst I was hoping for huge scores from the England batsmen, the commentators were inevitably talking about another batting collapse. Whilst I was imagining a tumble of Australian wickets, the Aussie batsmen were piling on the runs.
My personal feeling of dread has been shared by cricketing experts on radio and television. I even think this dread has been felt by the English cricket squad itself.
By comment consent, the preparation of the England team for this series in Australia has not been good in the long-term and in the short-term. The players’ execution during matches has also been below the required level. We can consider these shortcomings in 3 categories – as we would do when analysing the delivery of any project:
The uncertainty that characterises any project should generate fear – whether this be a project aimed at winning a sports competition, developing a must-have product or constructing a new hospital. This fear should then be used to bind a team together. However, for this to happen a project needs to be prepared and executed well.
If preparation and execution is not good, fear turns into dread. Dread has the opposite effect to fear because it divides not unites, it de-energises not fires-up. Parties then take different positions to mitigate the personal damage they will incur because of the project going badly. Inevitably, overall project outcomes relating to things such as time, cost, quality, safety or product performance then suffer.
This dreaded feeling that something is destined to go wrong is something that I still see in too many construction project teams. And just like the England cricket team, this dread is invariably caused by organisational, behavioural or technical shortcomings.
Within the last 12 months, I have overheard things like “We rushed the site surveys”, “The design was not properly co-ordinated”, “We didn’t read the specification properly”, “There was never enough money in the job”, “The programme is far too tight”, “The tender period was too short”, “The work was sub-contracted out at the lowest price” or “We never managed the commissioning correctly”
In each of these instances, I also sensed dread amongst the people working on the project; that horrible feeling of being on a speeding train that has no brakes, treading water in a shark-infested sea or running out of air in a subterranean chamber – things are not going to turn out well.
Given the complex nature of constructions projects, fear is inevitable. It could be argued that fear is a pre-requisite of any successful project endeavour. However, real skill and care is required to prevent that fear turning into dread - with all its unfortunate consequences.