Externalization

Much like the famous twelve step program used for dealing with substance abuse, a first step in addressing the issues that lead to project failure is a willingness to admit that a problem exists.

Facing up to a mistake or being willing to take ownership for events that we feel reflect poorly upon us, is something that many find hard to do. In the political realm that exists whenever human beings interact, there is an inherent fear that an admission of failure will hold forth unimaginable consequences. Often we’re not quite sure what those consequences may be, but rather than take the risk, we put up defenses and do all we can to guard against what we perceive to be attacks against our own persona.

One of the primary methods of defense is “externalization”. Rather than admitting an error or flaw, we find an external entity upon which to place the blame. Be it blaming the customer, the tools or singling out other events that conspired against us, the focus shifts from truly understanding the issues at hand, to finding someone or something else to blame.

While it is a natural process that we’ve all likely used at some point in our lives, externalization is a roadblock to developing the insight and understanding needed to improve. Externalization masks underlying issues and as such represents a learning opportunity lost.

The irony in externalization is that while we fear the negative consequences of admitting an error, often the consequences of taking ownership of an issue can in fact be highly beneficial. Not only do we get the benefit of learning from our mistakes, frequently we also gain the trust and admiration of those around us as well. People generally respond positively to those that are willing to accept ownership. Those positive reactions in turn help remove the fears that others feel thereby helping groups lower their defenses and start to share learning experiences as a team.