Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Propaganda versus Glasnost

Issues arise in any sizable project. Devil hides in the details, and no plan can take them all into account. If you are managing such a train on fire, do you pretend that everything is great? Or…

Photo by Dmitry Komarovsky
Actually, keeping a good and constructive attitude is a useful technique. “Don't panic!” is an excellent advice for any traveler from A to B, not just interstellar hitchhiker. If you allow the weight of all the issues, problems, risks, known and (worse!) unknown, to “get to you”, it could stop you from doing your job effectively, it could get conveyed to your team, and thus make matters only worse.

Panic doesn't help.

But! Does it mean you need to pretend everything is dandy, when in fact it is not?

I've grown in a culture, first USSR then its heavy legacy, which encourages superficial grand successes, huge monuments, grandiose architecture, massive choreographed events for display of power — surrounded by poverty and broken economics. Showing off at the cost of… well, everything. This year's Sochi games, a “feast in time of plague”, is an obvious illustration of this approach, yet it is happening on many many levels in our culture.

In project management this means working on how you look, instead of on the project. You either postpone acknowledging the issues until it is inevitable (and then find anyone, anything, that you can blame, since even mentioning the fact of issues damages your image of a perfect leader), — or you work on solving the issues, which sometimes means involving the customer, losing your face a little, hearing unkind responses — but pushing forward to get the job done.

The arguments in favour of a superficial approach are simple:

  • The customer may not trust us in the future if they see that we were struggling.
  • The competition should not be aware of our weakness, or they'll pounce.
  • Everyone should think we never err, this will bring us more customers.
  • (the final blow) Encountering issues is unprofessional.

This is ridiculous. Ensuring that you look great at the cost of the service you are providing is as far from being “professional” as possible. And, when dealing with a pragmatic customer (not one who is also interested in just the surface success), they will understand that issues happen, so if we pretend that we are perfect — we look as simple liars. What a pragmatic customer needs to know if how do you plan to address issues that may happen, how you deal with the issues that did happen, and how you learn on the mistakes you've made.

Gorbachev was arguably forced to accept the “Glasnost” policy, yet this was the only way to start addressing the issues that have been accumulating for decades. Either that, or starve to death, North Korea-style. Many unwisely blame Gorbachev for “creating the issues”, though there is a huge difference between “creating” and “uncovering with the aim to solve”.

If you do spot a customer who only needs a pretense success — run. In our locale this happens in government budget projects (almost guaranteed, in fact). In your case it may differ. Yet working on a project which emphasises form over substance, shining reports for a job poorly done, destroys you. Don't do it.

On the other hand — be diplomatic about risks and issues. Don't scare the customers off, don't panic yourself, but get your act together, face the obstacle — and deal with it. If you fail — learn from the experience, and be better prepared next time.

Or worry about how grand your mausoleum is going to be. Your choice.

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