In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays a convict in constant trouble. At one point the warden says to Luke, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate!” Trouble continues until the climax when Luke runs and is cornered in a church. He leans out the window and mockingly yells to the warden, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”, quickly followed by a guard putting a bullet through Luke’s throat. In the corporate world, a failure to communicate is a very common problem, and often results in drastic actions. In this world, however, a bullet through the throat is, thankfully, not a common outcome.
When most projects begin there is great hope and promise for all involved. A terrific product has been defined, complete product requirements have been written (he said optimistically), a thorough project plan has been put in place (also optimistically), and all parties have signed up to deliver what is necessary to successfully bring this wonderful product to market. There is a strong degree of trust among all the many parties from multiple organizations, including product development, product management, sales, marketing, finance, manufacturing, senior management, etc (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). All the world is in harmony! J It is virtually impossible for things to be much better from this starting point, so there is really only one direction that things can go – downhill. Along the way, problems will arise, eroding trust and straining relationships (see Trust Me - I'm Not Like The Others!).
For example, while requirements have been agreed to and signed off, they are really a set of statements negotiated among a group of people. These statements combine the original expectations of the group. If every member of the group agrees on the statement, that is great; however, more often than not, requirements statements consist of some consensus of conflicting expectations. When the actual implementation of those requirements goes off track from one or more group member’s expectations, then trouble will arise, and the “signed off” requirements will no longer be as firm as was thought. There will be a perceived “failure to communicate”.
Similar breakdowns may occur throughout the project, despite best planning efforts (see Plan Based On What You Know, and On What You Don’t!). As per that blog post, the project will encounter known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. There will be problems in translation between the “languages” of different organizations (see Speaking in Tongues, and Can You Hear Me Now?). There will be levels of dysfunction among specific people or groups (See Dysfunctional Families). There will be “agreements” that things can be done that really cannot be done (see Unrealistic Expectations and Sunny Day Scenarios). There will be a myriad of unexpected things that will happen (see When Bad Things Happen To Good Projects).
As further examples, assumptions you made will prove to be untrue. Predicted times to accomplish tasks will prove to be overly optimistic (see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game). New features will be identified and demands will be made to incorporate them (of course without affecting the schedule). People will get sick or leave. New people will require more training than anticipated. Problems such as these and many more happen in any, and virtually every, project.
When such problems arise, they are typically exacerbated by a reluctance to admit these are problems. The magnitude of the problems may be hidden and not communicated. Consequent delays ensue and milestones are missed. People who try to point out problems early are often punished (see No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!). People begin to lose trust, and to feel that their trust has been betrayed. They will then take such “betrayals” personally and this will further damage relations, sometimes permanently. People involved, particularly management, will be “surprised” (always a bad thing). Commitments that have been made by other organizations only indirectly involved in the daily efforts of the project, based on commitments from the project plan, will be drastically impacted. Sales forecasts may become meaningless, revenue projections may be drastically wrong, commitments to key customers may be missed, etc. There will be a view that there has been a betrayal of trust all around.
What we’ve got here is not primarily a failure to meet expectations or that expectations have been violated over the course of projects. Expectations are always violated. It is inevitable! All projects start in ignorance and confusion (although not recognized as such at that time), and are completed in the relative clarity of hindsight. People shouldn’t really be surprised that expectations get violated, but they are. The process of completing projects is the process of learning. As we learn, assumptions change, expectations get violated (inevitably), and feelings get hurt. When people’s feelings get hurt, trust is eroded, and when the problems are finally exposed, the explanations will not be accepted. The explanations of strangers, such as consultants like me, often will be accepted, even if they are the same, because there will be a level of trust with the consultant that no longer exists with those who concealed the problems. This can be great for the consultant, but not necessarily for the company, for although the problems may get corrected, the damage in the relations inside the company may not.
No, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate! The very human problem of hurt feelings due to unmet expectations can be mitigated only if there has been a very open and free flow of information throughout the project, and especially when the inevitable troubles arise. Communication is required at every step along the way. When the first problem arises, it should not be hidden or minimized. It should be communicated. By doing so, a larger community of people can discuss alternative, often more creative ways to address it. The project team should hold regular meetings to discuss and resolve problems as they arise. Informal meetings or lunches should be held with the stakeholders in other organizations in the company so that they’re aware of problems and can contribute to solutions. And so it should continue throughout the project. There should be no surprises! By eliminating “failures to communicate”, problems can be addressed in a fashion that all stakeholders can understand and concur with, even if they don’t agree. The lesson is to recognize that there will inevitably be problems and “betrayed” expectations, but these can be properly dealt with only if we communicate, communicate, and communicate some more!
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