Speaking Truth to Power Part 1. 2500 years of Shooting the Messenger

Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.
Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.

I was going to start this post with a link to the opening scene from the film Gladiator. You know, the bit where Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is waiting pensively for a messenger to return from telling the German Barbarians to surrender. All around his Roman Legions prepare for battle (very dramatic). The messenger does return (but not in good shape) and Maximus commands, in a slightly Aussie accent, “at my signal, unleash hell”.

It’s all very gruesome, so I thought I’d share a less frightening Dilbert Cartoon, even if it does involve Tar and Feathers. I’m sure you get the point though, shooting the messenger or doing other unpleasant things to people who bring bad news or speak truth to power, is a commonly understood concept. This is something that’s still quite widely practiced, even if its done metaphorically nowadays.

The best project management cartoon ever.
The best project management failure cartoon ever, I had to include this.

The Modern World of Project Management. I’ve recently been listening to people, who know a lot about project management, explain some of the reasons why projects fail. These weren’t casual observers, they knew their stuff: Tony Whitehead from UK Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority; Steve Edwards from the Project Management Institute; James Scrimshire from Adaptagility, Ray MacNeil from the Government of Nova Scotia, Kath McGrath from Cwm Taff Health Board, Louise Payne from Wrexham Council and Richard Wilson from Welsh Government.

The big thing I took from their combined wisdom was, not telling the truth to power contributes to very many project failures.

Paraphrasing some of the discussions, the problem starts with people not being prepared to tell those in power that things aren’t quite going to plan / something isn’t working / it’s all gone horribly wrong!

This ‘over optimistic reporting’ (aka Green Shifting) can have dire consequences. In extreme cases this can be when the person in charge delightedly receives the news that everything is ‘a green light’, and pushes for more progress. The result is driving something that is already a problem over the cliff and into disaster. There are plenty of high-profile examples you can read about on 101 Common Reasons Why Projects Fail, and also learn about interesting terms like ‘Green Shifting’ from a major BBC project failure.

Failure to Speak the Truth to Power. Its been interesting to talk about this phenomenon. Almost everyone recognises it. It’s not just about projects, it happens everywhere (think Mid Staffs Hospital), and it’s not just about large-scale activities.

The Darth Choke…
The Vader Choke…”you failed to allocate me an executive parking space”….

It is tempting at this point to think that this is just a problem with the bosses. You know the type, the Darth Vader wannabe.

The image of the ‘Vader Choke’, being applied to a hapless Death Star Employee after some failure is a Star Wars classic. Most people will have encountered, or heard of, their very own organisational Darth Vader (and it’s not restricted to males).

But it’s not  just the fault of the bosses. I’m grateful to Ray MacNeil for pointing out that this is a complex problem that involves more than just the boss. Organisation systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen. This recent example of a whistleblower from the UK Treasury illustrates the point.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.
Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Just how long has this been going on? Well, at least 2500 years. Old Tales of New Leadership, Organisational Culture and Ethics, by James O’Toole from the University of Santa Clara is well worth reading. The article starts with description of the 4th century BC Greek play, Antigone. I won’t spoil it (have a read for yourself), but the challenges of speaking truth to power from 2500 years ago seem very fresh and relevant today. Change the names of the actors, and any of the people I spoke to about project management failures last week would recognise the situation.

So what can you do? The honest  answer? If its been going on 2500 years, I’m probably  not going to give you the solution in this blog…… well not in this post. The article by James O’Toole does contain some very useful material which I will expand on in some future posts. Like: Speaking the Truth to Power Pt2. Messengers; Sycophants, Axe Grinders and The Brave.

In the meantime, if it is any comfort, your project failures that are a result of not speaking the truth to power have a very strong heritage, over 2500 years of it. You are helping to keep ancient traditions alive.

So What’s the PONT?

  1. The failure to speak truth to power, or shooting the messenger, is an age-old problem at least 2500 years old.
  2. The consequences of failing to speak truth to power can be catastrophic.
  3. It’s a complex problem; Leaders, Messengers and the Organisation all contribute, although bosses do have a big part to play in fixing it.

Linked Posts: Agile Project Management. http://whatsthepont.com/2012/12/02/agile-project-management-and-a-naval-bombardment-in-newport-south-wales/

Picture Sources:

Newport Chartists: My pictures, murals on display at Newport Civic Centre. Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newport_Rising  More pictures below

Dilbert Cartoon: http://search.dilbert.com/search?w=shoot+the+messenger&x=-736&y=-184 

Project Management Failure:  impossible to find a source – its everywhere

Vader Choke: Try Wookiepedia – Star Wars wiki http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Telekinesis


Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.
Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings.


About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

13 Responses

  1. Hi Chris. Do we know of any examples of organisations where speaking truth to power is facilitated? Any models to follow?

    I think the resolution must in the end lie with the leadership and surely a framework can be found to facilitate the process?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term ‘Critical Pathways’, a project modelling technique, but in my mind it looks a bit different.

    I see a critical pathway as a business with a long corridor with different teams situated in offices on either side. Occasionally, someone pops their head out of the office and shouts down the corridor ‘this isn’t working’. Every time this is done the person is perhaps interviewed and the concern recorded. The concerns are written up on a message board in the corridor for everyone to view and challenge as they walk past. Regular analysis of the concerns could take place with a view to pull out learning and possible innovations. When important decisions are made the concerns should be brought to the table and considered.

    This kind of approach is obviously easier to discuss than to implement and would rely on creating what Amy C Edmondson calls a ‘psychologically safe environment’ where criticism, more than allowed is facilitated.

    The point I think is like in James Reason’s ‘Swiss Cheese Model’ to catch errors and small failures early before abject failure occurs. It’s a model of this type that in my mind has the potential to attach consistent learning to the behaviour of an organisation and with that learning the flexibility to change with the times. For me that type of flexibility equates to sustainability.

    Is this too simplistic a view do you think?

    PS the boss would also be able to pop his head out of the office too 🙂

      1. Thanks Chris. I’ll have a look at those examples. I do like the Honda video, in fact I used it in a talk at a UK Recovery Federation conference in Leicester a couple of weeks ago in an attempt to help people see the different ways of looking at failure. In some senses some of these enlightened organisational approaches to failure can help people consider a more helpful individual approach.

        Always a pleasure to read anything from you touching on failure and challenging the status quo on a subject like talking truth to power will give people something to go away and think about I’m sure.

  2. Lovely post again and now quickly shows age: I have to admit to chuckling when http became the standard for the early interwebnet. I’ve always thought of it, and the internet as Hurling Truth To Power. I think I’ll create a social identity called sttp, because of it’s as simple as getting yourself heard with the boss, then that should do it.

    A few years ago, most of the white middle class men, who ran the business (whatever it is) actually started off in the business, way down the ranks. By the time they gained power, they mostly knew the nuances of doing the thing the company did, better than their own families. This is no longer the case.

    Thanks to various amorphous leadership development behaviouralist claptrap, we now have people in power who don’t know the business. They have little capability to understand the truth, let alone recognise it from all the other cobblers that comes their way. Poor bunnies. So the things that put a leaderist in danger, are issues of personal reputation and public relations, not the business. Hardly a shock therefore, when they mostly only react to things that fail routinely by surprise, rather than the real underlying issues. And if your stupid enough to tell them, they come out shooting.

    Great post and of course the answer is, don’t tell them, must get on with it. Lewisham, Challenger, 9/11, Deep Water were all predicted before they happened by intelligent analysts, amongst a crescendo of other useless noise. The issue is noise: bad from the shoutiest leaderist, but when it comes from many staff shouting at once, good! #sttp

  3. There’s a multi million pound IT disaster being rolled out in my place, everybody knows is shit, and is completely unstoppable. It’s a privilege to witness such a clichéd disaster up close, the main feature of which is everybody who is a plain user hates it, but it is acclaimed by every senior person responsible for rolling it out.
    Nobody has the power to say anything because of the senior person in charge who is a… Sadly cannot complete that sentence for reasons of safety which should tell you enough.
    The chief reason any performance problem goes unchecked is the thinking of those in power and how they enact their beliefs about work. They are the cause but also the potential solution to performance problems… But only if they care enough.

  4. […] The problems created by a power difference are usually for the people with the least power, and often they don’t speak up about it… for very good reasons. Speaking truth to power is as much of a challenge for people in partnerships as it if for individuals. I wrote about this a while back in 3 linked posts, here’s the first one: Speaking Truth to Power Part 1. 2500 years of Shooting the Messenger.  […]

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