Can Neuroscience Improve the Project Brain? 1 of 3


“I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened.”

Mark Twain

Search “Project Failure” and you will get over 160,000,00 results. That’s a lot of bad outcomes. Poor communication and lack of planning continue to show up as top causes. We know that, and we’ve been teaching people the best tools and practices to avoid these predictable pitfalls for years. We can point to many success stories, and yet even in organizations with well-developed project cultures some astonishingly basic missteps persist, seemingly impervious to change.

For example, consider these two questions:

1) When launching a project do you think you should tell other people on your team the goal?

2) If you’re a member of a project team and don’t know the goal do you think you should ask?

Participants in my project training sessions universally agree with these statements. Yet, when run through a fifteen-minute project simulation in which they encounter communication constraints similar to those they face in the real world, that’s not what they do. Those people who know the goal tend not to share it, and those who don’t know the goal, for the most part, fail to ask.

In other experiments people are shocked to discover that they are less trusting and trustworthy than they believe, frequently make gross misjudgments on simple estimations, and are unable to see words and objects staring them right in the face because of the unexpected quirks of our selective attention. In short, there is a profound and predictable disconnect between what we know, and what we actually do that is an unrecognized driver of project breakdown. Under these conditions, a state of mind (and biology) emerges that can become highly resistant to standard technical and behavioral remedies because the problems now reside at a much deeper level, much like trying to install new software and apps on an out-dated operating system.

Since Pavlov’s famous conditioning experiments with dogs at the beginning of the 20th century we’ve known that unrelated experiences can become neurologically linked so that the ringing of a bell can stimulate salivation. In the language of modern neuro-plasticity, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Think about what’s getting conditioned when every time you ask me when I want something done, I respond, “yesterday!” This is an impossible demand, a challenge that cannot be overcome. Look at some of the most popular metaphors used to describe our project environments. We are “laying track in front of a moving train,” or we are “building airplanes in the air,” these are overwhelming, potentially life-threatening stories. Although these statements are not literally true, the neurological changes that occur through mental imagery are so effective that, toward the end of his career, the concert pianist Glenn Gould relied largely on mental practice when preparing himself to record a piece of music.

When the body’s coping mechanism (the HPA axis, hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) cannot overcome a challenge (I need it yesterday) and/or is chronically exposed to threat (trains and planes) it can become overtaxed and get “stuck” in a stress response that is identified by symptoms, which include:

• Feeling overwhelmed

• Poor judgment

• Sense of isolation

• Pessimistic approach or thoughts

• Irritability or short-temper

• Reactive coping behaviors driven by anxiety

Project participants report experiencing these symptoms so consistently that we might dismiss them as simply one of the unintended, but inevitable costs of doing business. What if that assumption is incorrect? This chronic stress response is both costly, and, to a considerable degree, correctable. In fact, until we deal with this incompatible operating system, many of our technical and behavioral solutions will continue to be undermined. How we might do this is what I would like to explore in Parts Two and Three.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top