Mon 6 Jul 2009
I’ve worked at two kinds of companies in my career:
- those with open and honest communication
- those whose communications better resembled Soviet-style propaganda
As a manager, I’ve always considered accurate information one of my most important assets. I need to know where we are and what it’s going to take to succeed. My team has standing orders to let me know as soon as they figure out that they’re not going to make it so we can adjust the plan.
I’ve always been surprised when the people I have reported to didn’t share this enthusiasm. As managers, our chief responsibility is making effective decisions to achieve the stated goals. How can you possibly do that in an environment that doesn’t encourage people to speak the truth?
On one project, we developed the following phrase to report statuses, “I know of no reason that the project won’t be completed on time.” While most of us had serious misgivings about the plan, anytime someone voiced those concerns their manager would grill them like Perry Mason trying to get a confession. In the end, you really can’t prove that things won’t get done on time, so why get worked over for nothing.
This predilection for denial showed up when we were asked to build a new capability in about 3 months. I did some analysis and determined that it couldn’t be done and that it would take more like 9 months. My manager wasn’t happy with that estimate, so he asked some other developers. One said he could do it, which vindicated the manager and made him happy.
After 3 months, the project was starting to come together, but the core of it still had a lot of work left. So the developer told the manager that he needed a couple more months. The manager, really needing this to get done, granted the extension. That cycle repeated itself a couple of times until, in the end, the project took about 9 months to complete.
You would think that the manager would be upset at a developer who so seriously underestimated the amount of work needed. Instead, he was roundly praised for his can-do attitude.
It takes courage to speak the truth, particularly when it is an unpopular truth. Likewise, it takes courage to be willing to hear the truth, since it will often conflict with your own beliefs and desires. Being willing to speak and hear the truth has always been the hallmark of the best companies for which I have worked.