You Have To Tell The Emperor!

You can read countless books, blogs, and so on with regards to leadership, communication, and team building.  You can also subscribe to a number of methods/methodologies (Prince2, PMI, APM, Agile, ITIL, Lean, etc) that provide tools and techniques for managing time, workflow, budgets, schedules, prioritization, etc.  So then why is it, with all of these resources, that we still hear questions about the value of project management or we constantly here of cost overruns and missed deadlines?  I have written about Conflict and Saying No before, but those posts and every other resource I alluded to earlier will not help if you continue to shy away from the difficult conversations. 

A mentor of mine (Don) walked out of our office one day and said “It is time to tell the Emperor he has no clothes!”  He saw me pause with confusion and explained how The Emperors New Clothes , an old fairytale, is played out in the corporate world all the time.  Teams are always hiding reality of the situation from upper management in order to catch up or hide the mistakes/mishaps of the team, but that someone needs to tell them the reality of the situation.

I usually post a short 30sec – 1 min video to make you laugh and bring a lighter side to blog posts.  This is not a funny video, but if you can sit through the 5 min, I really think you will get a lot from it.  Here you go…  video of the week.

Every project has their unknowns and mistakes that cause delays or result in a Change Request, it is the nature of working with something new.  However, I have sat in project meetings where the team says “Let’s not draw attention to it” or “give it another week, we should be able to get back on track”.   One of my big pet peeves is to sit in a meeting with technical folks, have a vendor pitch a solution, and not have one question asked of the vendor…seriously!  The project manager is constantly in these scenarios…

  1. Ethical challenges of what you should and should not disclose to the executive sponsor.
  2. Potential embarrassment of asking a question that everyone in the room already knows.
  3. Straining relationships by digging deeper into someone’s function (leveraging 5 whys)

A project manager’s job is made that much easier if they can effectively leverage the tools and techniques of the trade…develop relationships, document requirements, set expectations, leverage tools for risk management, etc.  But when it gets down to it, the Project Manager needs to be ready to take some fire, as well as set a little of their own.  Dancing around difficult questions or giving the benefit of the doubt because you don’t want to be left out from the lunch time crowd is not the characteristic of great project manager.  You can’t not ask the question or escalate that mid-manager because you are hoping to get rehired when your current contract is up.

Something project managers need to remember is that there are vendors out there like the 2 scoundrels in this week’s video.  They are in the business to make money and will convince you to buy that additional module when you may not actually need it.  Often times, the project team is new to one another and no one is ready to ask that ‘dumb’ question or portray themselves like the older man in the video.  Unfortunately what happens is that our Executive Sponsor gets excited with reports of a strong project and starts marching the corporate halls in his britches!  Project Managers have got to be like the little boy in this video and call it as they see it.  It is our job to meet the expectations of our clients and keep them accurately informed along the way.

If this is something you cringe at, then start slow.  Don’t go right to your Executive Sponsor and call them out for not approving a budget or delaying on a decision.  Work within your project team first. Hopefully you have been developing the relationships, setting an environment of execution, and have some relationship clout at this point to challenge some plans/progress.  Start by challenging a duration.  Ask them to review their plan…you say 21 days to complete x, why is that? Ask them to come back to you with a few alternatives to bring that down to 14 days.  You can pick a budget item and go to that resource and ask “why so much?” Challenge the number of resources…skill level…time frame.  Obviously you want to look for something that will have some positive impact on the project when doing this.  I started by doing this with vendors.  It isn’t that I didn’t care about them or had this “she is only a vendor’ attitude, but I was less attached personally with vendors and could play on the “Your the expert, so bare with me” approach when pushing on them.

Over the years I have developed my own style and ability at challenging project resources and letting the Emperor (Exec/s) know about issues.

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4 thoughts on “You Have To Tell The Emperor!

  1. Deborah, Barney, and Cross Industry Leadership thank you so much for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment. I am very honored and it is so much more fun when folks interact.

    Deborah – you are so right, in that it is the PMs job to have the difficult discussions. If someone can not do it, they probably should get into this field.

    Barney – The dance is funny to watch and frustrating to be a part of. The dance being the finger pointing. This is another difficult aspect of the PMs job, knowing you are going to ‘choose sides’ when determining where the breakdown was. I hate when I have to point to myself.

    Cross Industry Leadership – Great comments and more of a newsletter then book ;) As I said, i really enjoy the interaction and comments. I never thought about the economies effect on the boldness of the PM…great point! I agree also with your half-time comeback analogy. I am happy when I usher a project through to success, but to get into one with issues and rally the team to success is an awesome feeling!

    Thanks all! – Robert

  2. Excellent perception and comparison. I would have to say that in a booming/thriving economy the voice of the subordinate is strong, as upward mobility in the workplace was almost certain for the strong minded. (The shakers)

    Unfortunately the current state of the economy has employees more concerned about the mortgage payment, thus softening their motivation to right the wrong, which usually involves an employee exposing a not so perfect decision made by his/her immediate supervisor.

    Bottom Line – Managers manage. The whole point is to have an individual that can identify issues and concerns, communicate effectively in both directions, blah blah blah.

    Coming back in the second half after deep team collaboration at half-time to beat your opponent, is much more satisfying to a coach than sitting back on the bench and watching a team loaded with all-stars blow the competition away.

    Houston we have a problem! That’s more like it. Your life (career) depends on fixing the problems that arise. Showing that your handling them…….PRICELESS

    Very interested in the topic.
    Sorry for the short book.

  3. Hello Robert

    Superb post! The analogy is spot on well done. I believed strongly that one of the main reasons why project failure stats are so high is because the PM (or the team) hide problems or don’t address issues until it is to late to do anything about them because of “looking bad”.

    In fact I have seen many project managers after a project has been a disaster point to his/her success and show how well they did but the project failed because other teams/people didn’t perform their roles. It was the job of the PM to make sure they did and shout it from the rooftops if they didn’t!

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great article! Too often, people don’t take enough ownership of a project, good or bad. I’ve seen a lot of project managers shine in the spotlight when projects are going well, but don’t do anything proactive when things go wrong.

    To my mind, project managers are paid to ask these tough questions, not to take a bunch of team credit when things are going smoothly.

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