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 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.
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.
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?
- The failure to speak truth to power, or shooting the messenger, is an age-old problem at least 2500 years old.
- The consequences of failing to speak truth to power can be catastrophic.
- 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/
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
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 🙂
Interesting question, are there any organisations where speaking truth to power is facilitated?
Lots of employee engagement surveys seek to answer this question.
The standard ‘my voice is listened to around here’ type question. I guess that any organisation that does well in things like the Sunday Times Best Workplaces survey (or similar) is probably pretty good on this front.
Two organisations I’ve seen that have a culture that supports speaking truth to power are geographically close together – in the West Midlands – Ricoh in Telford and Bromford in Wolverhampton.
I did write quite a bit about Ricoh.
Ricoh have a system where people constantly question assumptions and seek continuous improvement. In this sort of environment, speaking truth to power seems to come easier.
From what Ive seen, manufacturing organisations that adopt methods drawn from Lean seem to achieve this. Things like the Gemba Mat I saw at Ricoh seem to help this happen.
It is worth a look at the Honda ‘Failure, the Secret of Our Success’ videos.
They do suggest that recognising failure and speaking truth to power is very much the way of doing things. Interestingly, someone did point out to me that this might of been the situation in the innovative world of Indy Car Racing, but not the situation for high volume motor car manufacture.
The other thing I was going to mention was the product design process I saw being used on the course my son is attending.
Students produce prototype designs, appraise them, get feedback from their peers, make changes and move on.
I think this helps and they don’t get too emotionally attached to any single thing too early in the process. I do wonder if this type of thinking would help in other settings?
I’m just having a think about the ‘critical pathway’ and some of the things I heard about in the project management sessions.
Communication is the key factor here.
I do like the Amy Edmondson idea of a ‘psychologically safe’ space. I think it completely depends upon the organisation.
The James O’Toole paper is very good on this, helpfully illustrating a few examples of where it did and didn’t exist.
For me, this all describes a complex adaptive system.
Ultimately though. bossed need to listen and encourage a climate of ‘respectful dissent’.
Without that they run the risk of not just failure, but catastrophic failure at some point.
I’ll stop rambling now.
Thanks for your thoughts.
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.
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
Thank you Nosapience, so much here to think about – which is why I’ve waited until Sunday evening.
I agree so much on the point about the leaderists. I’m holding back on a full scale rant about the scourge of ‘fast trackers’, rotated around places for 3 months to allegedly acquire the skills and understanding, and then catapult them into a position where they can do lots of damage as ‘decision makers’.
There is lot to be said for a proper apprenticeship.
Just pondering on #sttp and the role of social media. There was a great hope that the use of social media would allow this. I get the sentiment, and really want it to work….. but…..you do need people on the receiving end that want to listen. When you put that in the world of the leaderists its not going to happen very easily.
Thats not to sat we shouldn’t keep trying with #sttp.
I’m wondering if we should engage Complex Wales in a campaign.
What works best, Shouting Truth To Power #sttp or Shouting Truth At Power #stap ?
So much to think about.
By the way have you seen the Cognitive Edge / Cynefin / SenseMaker event in Caernarfon 27/28th October?
Thanks so much
Reblogged this on Nosapience's Blog and commented:
More eloquent loveliness, with a curmudgeonly splurt from yours truly. Looking forward to the next couple in the series. #sttp (I’m trade-marking that).
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.
Sorry it’s taken me ages to respond to this…. I didn’t know where to start.
Feels a bit like classic inability to speak truth to power, because doing so might well result in the metaphorical removal of head from the shoulders.
Sounds like it has a lot on common with some of the IT disasters that were replayed at the session I attended.
A massive waste of money and we seem to be unable to much about it.
One of the worst things is the effect this has on the people involved. It’s got to suck the life out of you…..
Which leads me on yo this….. The Project Management Death March.
Have a look at this : http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_march_(software_development)
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[…] 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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