Facing Up to the Truth

(c) 2001-2010 Esther Derby

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2

The other day I was skimming the Harvard Management Update when a section in bold red print caught my eye: “Why don’t more organizations stop and think? Because they don’t want to face the truth.” The article went on to say that the ability to “face the truth” is a critical business skill, and that failure to do so can have organizational and bottom-line consequences. Does this sound familiar? You and I see these consequences in software when projects spin out of control and shaky products are shipped “on time” in spite of poor quality.

What is “the truth”? Truth is a big word, so let’s settle for something more mundane: the current situation or the current state.

First let’s acknowledge that organizations can’t face truth; organizations are configurations of people and can’t really act as one human person would. But we, the people who make up organizations, can grapple with concepts like truth. So why don’t we? If it’s that important, we should all face up to the current situation, right? What makes it so hard for us?

Let’s look at two projects that didn’t go as hoped for, and how their sponsors faced the situation.

Martha was a new vice president in a software company that was growing by acquisition. Martha saw an opportunity to consolidate accounting and customer functions across acquired companies. She made the business case to her boss, Ben, chartered a project she named “One-Account,” and started the search for a project manager.

The hiring market was tight, and Martha couldn’t find anyone with the level of experience and skill she wanted for the salary she was able to offer. After interviewing a dozen candidates, she settled for a bright young man named Steve, even though he didn’t have much experience.

Pretty soon it became obvious that Steve didn’t have the skills to handle the large and complex project Martha had hired him for. Steve wasn’t able to manage scope or build even a basic plan.

“I can’t go upstairs and tell Ben this,” Martha thought. “If I tell him, he’ll think I’m a fake and a failure. I talked him into this, after all. We haven’t actually missed any dates,” she rationalized, “and we aren’t over budget, so we’re not really offtrack…”

When colleagues started suggesting that Martha needed to step in and put the project back on track, she countered by justifying her current situation. “I really did my best to find a more experienced project manger, but Steve was the fourth person I made an offer to, and by that point…what was I supposed to have done?”

The project continued to wallow as Steve frantically hired more contractors to work on the ever-increasing scope. Martha started moving resources from other projects and initiatives to cover the wildly inflating budget. “It’s all coming from my own budget, and I’ve got the One-Account project covered, so technically we’re not really over budget,” she told herself.

Martha’s boss, Ben, looked at his current situation, and realized he had a vice president who wasn’t able to face the situation and take action. Ben fired Martha.

Several times zones away, Jackson found himself in a similar spot. His organization was building a new Web application, the first for his company. He hired a project manager, Stacey, who had a good résumé and who seemed like a good fit for the organization. She was a nice person and did a good job building the initial plan.

Jackson felt things were going okay, so he turned his attention to a problem brewing with a subsidiary elsewhere.

When Jackson came back, he found that Stacey’s project team was still having planning meetings, but there were no results or tangible signs of progress. The delivery date had been moved out. When the team talked about delivery, they were pretty vague. “Sometime in maybe the fourth quarter,” he’d hear, “or maybe early next year.”

“This project isn’t going the way I want it to,” thought Jackson. “Stacey did well at the planning stage, but she isn’t able to define concrete deliverables so people can make progress. I sure like Stacey and I want her to be successful. I need to do something to put things back on track.” Jackson started by coaching Stacey, meeting with her three times a week and giving her more direction. Still, the project wasn’t turning around.

Jackson sat down and had a long talk with Stacey. It wasn’t an easy conversation for either of them. Jackson realized that he wouldn’t be doing Stacey any favors by keeping her on in a position that was turning out to be a poor fit. Stacey moved into a role where she was more comfortable, and Jackson took over management of the project.

On the face of it, both Martha and Jackson faced similar problems—an important project that wasn’t going as they wanted. And Martha and Jackson were each aware of the gap between the desired state and the current reality.

The difference was that Martha became wrapped up in her fears about what the situation might mean for her career, and her beliefs about failure. With all that emotion swirling around, there wasn’t much room left for her to think clearly about what to do. Jackson, on the other hand, looked at the facts as just that: facts—information about the difference between the current state and what he wanted. Does this mean we should suppress our emotions? No, as managers, we need to learn how to manage our own emotional state, so we can focus on solving the problem.

The current situation can seem “bad” when things are not going the way we hoped they would. But really, the situation justis. The ability to “face the truth” and take effective action rests on the ability to be in a mental state where our emotions and fears aren’t running us. And managers like Jackson have learned to face the current situation as neither good nor bad—it just is what it is. From that perspective, we can gauge where we are in relation to where we want to be, and take action to close the gap.

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, December 2001.