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. https://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