Forgiving and Unforgiving
Sailboats can be forgiving or unforgiving. Sailors say a boat is “forgiving” when it tends to self-correct.  An example would be a boat’s handling characteristics, especially how it performs in high winds and strong gusts. 

When the wind changes direction suddenly, and the tiller jerks free, does the boat tend to turn into the wind, or away from the wind?  If it tends to turn upwind in strong gusts, the boat is more stable, “forgiving.”  If it tends to turn downwind, it is less stable, “unforgiving.”

Training and performance projects are like that, too.  They can be forgiving or unforgiving.  Those that are forgiving are most likely to be successful.



Four Phase Performance Projects 

Performance projects tend to have four distinct phases:  Assessment, Planning, Delivery and Execution.  Each phase is separate, and can be separately forgiving or unforgiving.

During the first three phases, Assessment, Planning and Delivery, most projects are forgiving.  The elements are well defined and relatively easy to manage.  Project teams control the phase activities directly and respond quickly to change.  The teams are focused on the project and its purpose.

However the final phase, Execution, is sometimes less well defined.  Usually it is controlled by an operational team.  They may have other demands on their attention, on top of executing a performance project.  The management “tiller” may be held only lightly.  If organizational winds change direction, it may be difficult for the project to maintain its equilibrium.

If the sailboat metaphor holds water, then, the most likely source of instability for a project as a whole is the common instability of the fourth phase, an unforgiving Execution.


The idea seems attractive on the basis of face validity.  Any corporate citizen who has participated in more than half a dozen projects has seen more than one project launched confidently only to fall to pieces in execution.

Why is the pattern so common?

Project Thinking

When projects go off course, it tends to be in Execution. The reason lies in the nature of projects.  Most projects have an “end” as defined by the project plan.  They have a point at which the duty of performance is transferred from a project team to an operating team.

From the project team’s perspective, the project is complete at the point of transfer.  Members of the project team go on to another project.  The operating team takes over.

But not all projects have a definite point of completion.  Performance projects, especially, rarely have a definite end.  In performance projects new practices gradually blend into existing practices.  The new blended process is typically managed under the regime of continuous improvement.

The difference between project thinking and process thinking is apparent in fundamental business functions.  Marketing, for instance, often works as a series of projects: new products, new markets, new approaches to existing markets.  Selling, on the other hand, tends to be a set of processes: relationship building and maintenance, recurrent campaigns or pursuits of more or less the same structure.

A similar distinction can be drawn between product development and manufacturing.  Product development tends to be a series of projects, while manufacturing tends to be structured as a set of ongoing processes.

Process Thinking

Because the outcome of a performance project is a continuing process, rather than a completed project, a performance project requires process thinking, in addition to project thinking.  And execution, the final phase of a performance project, requires active management even at the point at which the new performance practices are no longer new.  Our experience is this:  The risk of failure in performance projects rests most often in the application of pure project thinking.Leaders of performance projects can ensure themselves against most breakdowns by maintaining their management attention through the Execution phase. The Purcell Group offers a range of execution services to help them.