Psychology & Happiness (in Project Delivery), Part I

Posted on November 13, 2012


Poll enough healthcare executives and it would not be unusual to hear project delivery compared to baby delivery:  laborious, painful and never the same experience.

Is project delivery ever a happy endeavor?  If so, how?  Can it be achieved with regularity?

Happiness may appear mercurial, yet it is a fashionable pursuit at the moment. Researchers note how current parenting beliefs, right or wrong, now center around making kids happy. Wall Street is on the bandwagon as well, with entire company philosophies like Tony Hsieh’s Zappos centered on the concept of delivering happiness as a way to secure profit.

Interestingly, happiness has been in the research crosshairs of psychologists for quite a while, and recently much more has been learned.  For instance, happiness differs between cultures.  According to research by the University of Virginia psychology department, ‘some cultures associate happiness with luck and do not believe it can be intentionally achieved, whereas Americans believe happiness is attainable through planning and hard work.’

Switching to the mode of project delivery, grizzled hospital veterans and administrators I have worked with typically approach projects with a slightly negative bias going in.  Why is that?  Why expect a less than optimal result before anything has even started?  Is it because projects are really about shades of gray, in that every project has problems, the question is ‘how many’?  On the bright side, research shows “being a little disgruntled can serve as an incentive to improve.”  Uncomfortable enough to improve and cynical toward success are very different, though.

What I have found more often than not, and what is also supported by psychology research:  healthcare systems forget how awful it was working with a particular project team.  Hospitals seem to color a project good or bad, and the teams associated with executing it can be seen as irrelevant pawns in the project’s progression—as if the team parts and pieces like architect and contractor could be swapped out and the project would still be a loser. I have also been a part of the contrary, where a project gets everyone put on the blacklist at an institution, regardless of individual performance.

Our brains “tend to overestimate the intensity and duration of future emotional states”, so projects can start out with overly optimistic goals.  I find this to be the case with aesthetics.  Many architects envision each project as an ‘award winner’…until the realities of budget and program rudely reshape those aesthetic goals. 

Then we “settle back to our normal state more quickly than we predict”, meaning we dismiss the causes to a bad project too quickly, and rarely analyze why or who created the main conflicts or decisions that resulted in the poor outcome. How many hospitals dissect a late or over budget project after-the-fact, and figure out how to prevent it in the future?

[Continue to Part II]