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Why You Absolutely Need a “Negative Nate” on Your Project Team

by Donna Fitzgerald  |  June 17, 2014  |  1 Comment

I found this quote from Ron Friedman of 99u interesting…

“A study in Psychological Science found that when we work with others to reach a decision, we become overly confident in the accuracy of our collective thinking. The confidence boost we gain from working in teams can feel exhilarating in the short term. But it also clouds our judgment.

My first reaction to the comment was “that’s nonsense” because I’ve never worked on a team where we weren’t always keeping our ears open to the possibility that we got it wrong.  After all, basic risk management tells you that “even if nothing can go wrong something still will” which means the members of any team still need to leave room in their collective mental models for the possibility that the assumption is just dead wrong.

My second reaction to the comment was “oh, maybe some people in the PPM community aren’t a professional paranoid (a skill I learned from working in the company run by the man who wrote Only the Paranoid Survive) and maybe the simple practice of ‘risk management by breathing’ which is conventionally known as continuous risk management isn’t as common as I assume.  After all most people hate focusing on bad news.

And therein lies the secret.  Most people hate focusing on what will go wrong, BUT some people are wired in a manner that their focus is always drawn to the negative.  They are the ones who find problems under every rock and who drive you crazy by always telling you why things won’t work.  They are also the people who keep you honest and the team and project safe if used correctly.  Additionally research from Stanford showed that teams that included what I will now christen a negative Nate were significantly more successful at completely the product of the project than those who lacked someone in this function.

Finding the right negative Nate for you organization takes luck and patience but statistically every organization will have a few to choose from.  Working with them takes patience on everyone’s part and an appreciation of their unique gift but I’ve seen it work on my own teams (I inherited the individual and only needed to be smart enough to not take management’s advice to let him/her go.)  Yes there were times when I said “thank you for sharing – we’re going to take the risk” but just as often I found we all said “thanks for sharing – now how do we insure that this doesn’t go wrong?”

Bottom line: Collaboration works if you don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.  Having the right negative Nate on the team keeps you honest naturally and significantly improves project outcomes with no extra work.

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Category: agile  organizational-development  pmo  program-management  project-management  

Tags: building-the-team  risk-management  

Donna Fitzgerald
Research Vice President
5 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Donna Fitzgerald focuses her research on strategies and approaches for using program and portfolio management as a way to create unique business value. Read Full Bio

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