Fact-checking is becoming something of a sport, particularly in an era of fake news and certain revisionist world leaders, but there is one place that facts need to be laid bare if you want good decisions made—and that’s in project delivery.
Take a quick scan of almost any global media outlet these days and it would seem that we are now living in a world that does not seem to value facts. Not just the complex, hard-to-understand facts, but the most basic ones such as whether someone has done something—or not.
We have some rather fantastic examples in the world today about what happens when facts take a back seat to rhetoric and self-interest—not to mention outright revisionist behaviour—leading to some serious credibility and trust issues among countries that traditionally have been great friends and trading partners. But it is also happening at the organisational level and that’s where we see the impacts: in project management.
Accurate and factual information is the cornerstone and lifeblood of successful project delivery. The ability to gather, distil, analyse, and explain the facts of a situation is the foundation of good decision-making. Without all the facts—be they positive or negative—it is difficult to have a thorough and clear understanding of all the possibilities and consequences that may exist in defining the project path or how it will impact a business or a decision-maker’s ability to make an appropriate decision or come up with an appropriate solution.
Brexit: Here We Go Again…
When we wrote about Brexit being the ultimate poisoned project management chalice, it wasn’t hard to see where it was found wanting in terms of the parallels to good project management hygiene. Basics like requirements gathering, stakeholder engagement, and setting realistic deadlines are just some of the more fundamental things that the British leaders have been woeful at addressing.
But as yet another leader takes hold of the reins of chaos that is Brexit, it is now Boris Johnson who, as his new deal is defeated in Parliament, can add another cardinal sin to the list of project fundamentals missteps that has come to characterise Brexit: This time it’s the reluctance to provide sufficient detail or time to enable a proper and successful decision-making process.
Most project managers will like Boris have had to, at some point, front a steering committee or the executive to get their endorsement for a complex or major decision. Influencing people that can be peers, senior to you or even hostile to agree to a contentious decision is never easy as Boris is finding out. Typically, in this sort of situation if you want any chance of being successful, there are three basic rules to follow (in our experience):
- Provide all the detail – And by detail, we mean more than a description of the issue and how the project got to where it is. In our experience, it also needs to include the details of a proposed solution – pros, cons, benefits, risks, opportunity costs and so on. In essence: bring everything to the table even if it’s buried in the appendices and be prepared to have it scrutinised.
- Never go alone – A project manager—or any leader—is not there for their subject matter expertise; they are there to lead the initiative and facilitate an outcome against various measures such as time, cost and quality. They can’t know all of the details and do their job 100% effectively. A good project manager will try to surround themselves with a good team of people that know the content and have the confidence to leverage their expertise at key points. This will include inviting the critical project players to key steercos to help explain and influence a decision in a positive direction.
- Set realistic timelines – There are many perspectives on ‘reasonable’ timelines, and this is never truer than when trying to get a group of disparate people to make a difficult and complex decision (and this seems particularly true for the British parliament!). Driving an aggressive timeline that limits time for a considered review of information will, by design, limit the level of considered input a person can provide. This will, in turn, introduce the significant risk of alienating the very people whose support you need to have on board, to the point that good ideas can get rejected on principle.
Don’t Be Tempted to Force the Hand
If we look at the current state of Brexit (yes, we know, just get it done, right?), Boris Johnson and his team have broken all three of the rules of communication we’ve mentioned above to get an endorsement on the UK’s divorce deal from the EU through parliament.
Firstly, they didn’t provide all of the facts. Critical content from the modelling provided by the UK Government’s own departments was withheld or disassembled when presented. The flagrant reluctance to share vital information to inform decision-making has alienated many of the MPs needed to achieve his Brexit outcomes.
Second, Mr Johnson has pretty much gone it alone trying to pitch his agenda. Instead of surrounding himself with smart and knowledgeable SMEs who can clearly articulate—without bias—a range of challenging concepts to influence those MPs he needs, he has galvanised a cheer squad that lacks any credibility and is hell-bent on an outcome without articulating the possible ramifications.
The Irish Backstop and a hard/soft/virtual border, anybody?
Finally, the timeline Mr Johnson set the most recent sitting of parliament to make a decision on the new Brexit deal brought back from Brussels was ludicrously short, a mere 48 hours to scrutinise the content and reach consensus. As one perceptive Opposition MP put it, he and his partner spend longer debating which sofa to buy than the time given to Parliament to review and understand the most important political and economic decision in the UK for the past 40 years.
Instead of Hiding the Facts, Put Them in the Spotlight
So, what is the moral of this story? Project managers could teach Mr Johnson a thing or two about navigating a difficult forum to get to a decision. First up, don’t hide the facts but rather do the opposite – bring them out into the open and shine a spotlight for full scrutiny. Secondly surround yourself with people who can explain difficult and complex content in an unbiased, clear way. And finally, always respect the decision-makers by giving them ample time to review the facts and form their own opinions.
Because here’s the rub: The decision that the steerco reaches may not be the one you want, even if it is for the right reasons. It may simply be that once all the facts were known, they didn’t stand up to scrutiny and thus a different and potentially more successful path is chosen which should ultimately benefit the business.
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