Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts!

You’re boss asks you to investigate a possible problem that has the potential to seriously derail a critical project or program. Work has been underway for some time now, and the release of this product (or service) is expected to have a substantial impact on the company. The problem, if indeed a serious one, could set back delivery and/or severely damage the image and reputation of the company. 

As you begin your investigation, it becomes ever more evident that the problem is real and is, indeed, serious. You know you’ve got much more work to do to fully understand the details and the consequences, but you want to give your boss an early heads up on your investigation. You don’t expect your boss to be happy about the news, but you do expect him to appreciate learning early in the investigation that there are real danger signs ahead. Instead, he starts yelling at you, saying that you simply don’t understand what your doing, and that you’ve simply got to reach the conclusion that everything is really alright (see Mis-Managers 2: Old Yeller). He is essentially saying, when the facts don’t provide the answer he wants, “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

What’s the mentatlity at work here? Your boss asked you to find out if the problem is true, and when you find out it is, he refuses to believe you. He trusted you enough to ask you to independently investigate, but won’t accept your answer when you learn and present the facts (see No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!).

When facts don’t match assumptions, a common first reaction is that the facts are wrong, not that the assumptions are wrong. Often, the assumptions have been around so long that they are considered common wisdom. When facts betray that common wisdom, the boss may view this as an insult to his/her intelligence, and blame the messenger. Changing the boss’ perspective, even with conclusive proof, is often hard, and can lead to negative perceptions of the person providing the ‘contrary’ facts. Unfortunately, this negative view of the bearer of bad news can linger beyond the current instance and on into the future. [In older and darker times the bearer of bad news was often killed!]

So what can you do when you find that the facts don’t support the assumptions? How can you present the contrary facts and conclusions in a way that doesn’t result in negative repercussions to you?

First, before you present your contrary conclusions, put your case together in a way that clearly demonstrates exactly what you’ve done in reaching your conclusions (how and why). [See Take the Time to Think!] Gain your boss’ agreement on your methodology as one that makes sense and is the right approach. Next, explain to him exactly how you’ve gathered the data, including other potential ways and why the way you’ve selected is the right way.  Again, gain his concurrence that you’ve done this the right way. Only after this groundwork has been done should you then show that the data do not support the assumptions made, and demonstrate conclusively why the problem is real and seriously problematic to the project. Explain that you’ve looked into the situation in a variety of ways other than what you’ve explained so far, and that all other approaches you’ve investigated lead to the same conclusion; the problem is real and serious (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table).

Next, if you’ve had the time to do it, explain possible solutions you have considered. Include the pros and cons of each, including the potential project impact of each on cost, resources, schedule, various company organizations, and other aspects as you can estimate them. Then, present your recommendations on the best course of action.

Your boss may still react harshly as described above, as this will still likely be his first reaction. After all, his view of how things were expected proceed has been drastically altered, and it takes time to process that (see The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). Expect an adverse reaction, let him know you understand his concerns, and then present the facts. Walk him again through each step, and ask him where he sees problems with what you presented. 

Since you’ve already walked him step-by-step through why, how, and what you’ve done, and he has concurred at every step of the way, his anger should dissipate somewhat, and he will be able to more rationally examine what you’ve presented. Examine the situation together, including the alternatives and your recommendation, and see what other conclusions, alternatives, and recommendations you can jointly reach. 

Ask him to bring in others familiar with the project to review your investigation, approach, data gathering, and conclusions. Ask them to examine other explanations, conclusions, or recommendations. The experience of other critical people who are deeply involved in the project can only help to spur new ideas and approaches. Bring in some others who may not be familiar with this specific project, but who have been instrumental in similar critical projects and get their insights. People outside of the project may be able to bring other perspectives which may lead to other creative solutions.

Whenever a difficult situation such as this arises, frustrations will grow and there is a tendency to refuse to accept that there is a problem. A calm, reasoned approach will enable those involved to rationally assess the situation and reach creative solutions. What such situations cannot afford is to have people whose only reaction is to say, “Don’t confuse me with the facts!

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