The Fallacy of Control within Project and Programme Management

The most liberating day of my career was when I realised that, despite being responsible for the project I was running at the time, I actually controlled very little of what happened. That was the day I freed myself from the “fallacy of control”.

I can’t really control who does what. I can’t really control whether an individual does the work to an acceptable quality. I can’t control whether or not the product owner is going to change their mind about priorities. I can’t control whether the proposed technical solution turns out to be much harder than anticipated or just a dead end.

All I can really do is influence what happens in my programme/project. Spot issues quickly and react appropriately. Lean-Agile gives me the tools to do that.

Fallacy of Control

Individuals, including project managers, who suffer from the The Fallacy of Control believe they can control everything. Of course this isn’t true and these individuals get frustrated that so many things are out of their control.

Mental health counsellors, who coined the term “Control Fallacy”, know it leads to stress and anxiety.

Actually there are two types of control fallacy (Mills, Reiss, & Dombeck, 2008). People who internalise control generally believe they have control over situations that they really don’t have. In contrast, people who externalise control see themselves as passive victims of other people’s efforts to control them.

The project manager’s dilemma

“You can’t be responsible for something over which you have no control.”

Monica A. Frank, Ph.D. (2010)

Project managers face a dilemma. They are paid to be responsible for things they cannot control. This is exactly the situation that Mental health counsellors such as Dr Frank believe puts individuals in an impossible position and leads to the control fallacy, stress and anxiety.

A project manager suffering from control Fallacy is likely to exhibit one of two sets of symptoms:

  • Internal Control Fallacy: They don’t delegate and try to do everything themselves, or delegate but micromanage. They might also bully their staff.
  • External Control Fallacy: They become passive and give up doing anything, because they believe others have the control.

Neither is good. The first set of symptoms (the micromanager) is why project managers have a bad name in the Agile world. But I’ve also seen a fair number of passive project managers – and they are equally as useless.

But there is a different way.

Successful management in a world without control

One of the reasons I love the Lean-Agile methods is that they give me tools to successfully lead programmes and projects despite the fact I have relatively little real control of what is actually happening.

I can influence but I can’t control. I am keen on management on the ground – staying close to the action – because it enables me to know what is going on and respond appropriately. If I spot an issue like those I listed above then I try to do something about it. Exploit an opportunity or resolve a problem.

The Agile techniques I outline in Agile Monitoring and Control are not about trying to control everything – that way lies madness. They are basic tools to manage risk given I know I can’t really control any of these things.

Several of my own managers have commented that I am always calm, despite whatever chaos is going on around me. I’m calm because I don’t try to control things that I can’t. And I have good tools to manage effectively without that control.


Frank, M. A. (2010). when the Need for Control Gets Out of Control. Excel At Life.

Mills, H, Reiss, N., and Dombeck, M. (2008). Cognitive Distortions Affecting Stress. Mental Help.

Willis, D. (2009). The Fallacy of Control. Sapient Corporation.

2 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Control within Project and Programme Management

  1. Nice article: straightforward and clear. One thing that occurred to me while reading it though is perhaps this is more a ‘big company’ problem than a ‘small company’ problem. If you start or run a small company the entry-level acceptance is that there are things you *are* responsible for that are out of your control. It doesn’t mean that you don’t suffer stress and anxiety, just that you have to learn to live with them to have any chance of personal survival, never mind business success. And I don’t mean things like changing requirements, below par-work or inaccurate estimates I mean things like sales, cashflow, over-exposure to a single customer, exchange-rate risk, etc.

    In my experience an acceptance of responsibility without control pervades a small company. Everyone gets that all they can do is their best and this can be completely scuppered by the unpredictable, unforeseeable and unimaginable … or even the mundane and predictable that you just don’t have the time/money/energy to deal with.

    ISTM this is one of many reasons that Agile/Lean is a better fit for small companies than big ones: most small companies I know have a natural agile/lean approach which means Agile/Lean tools and techniques fit well. Big companies look to Agile/Lean to help them achieve things they’re not naturally configured for leading to dissonance in the organisation and stress & anxiety for their people.

    • Thanks for your comments Paul.

      Although Control fallacy is something that afflicts individuals it is possible that different types and sizes of companies attract those individuals or encourage that fallacy. I’ve met a fair few people with control fallacy in large enterprises – working for them can be rather uncomfortable. As it happens I personally realised I couldn’t control everything, didn’t need to, when working in a very small company. But I’ve met people in small companies who suffer from this fallacy – it isn’t healthy for anyone.

      I’m not sure Lean-Agile is a better fit for small companies versus big companies. It kind of depends what you mean by Lean-Agile. And that is a very long discussion.

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