Victims of Success - How Do We Communicate Up In a Culture of Success?

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

Reporting risk is easy. It's a matter of sharing information through classical means. But in today's cultures of success, the problem is frequently associated with the challenge of getting management to accept negative news when the outcomes belie the information being provided. How do we give bad news when management isn't accustomed to hearing it?

This discussion was actually rooted in a recent class. A student raised the question above, forcing me to think it through and to consider the alternatives and options. Today's "dot-com" wonders point to precisely the environment he envisioned. They are classic for their short-sighted realities, dripping in success, when they should be considering the potential for negative long-term consequence. NASA encountered this in the Challenger disaster, and the experience was thoroughly documented in Diane Vaughan's tome, The Challenger Launch Disaster. Vaughan analyzes the accident in depth, and invests most of her discussion in the issues generated by a culture of success at NASA. She points to the rapid-fire series of successes in the face of potential disaster (including the STS mission just before Challenger) and NASA's growing sense of invulnerability at the time.

In a seminar recently with one of my clients, we discussed the same issue in a commercial environment. The organization had a gift for selecting projects well and for culling out the projects that didn't merit their efforts. As a result, the organization began to develop an attitude that "failure is not an option." And concurrently, management developed an attitude that risk was the purview of the project manager, rather than the organization as a whole. While those are not inherently problematic perspectives, they may become so as project managers feel they are being discouraged from sharing any potential bad news. As long as the organization continues to pick projects for which it is truly capable, knowledgeable, and able to manage the risks at the project level, project managers will succeed. But if the risk climate in the organization changes (as it may during a merger that's underway) the very culture of risk management will have to change.

In this best-practice environment, the client's not taking this lightly. They've begun development of risk checklists and risk models that will elevate visibility on project risks. Some project managers in the organization hold out hope that this will give them greater license to share information about risk with senior management. It may, and if the organization is to continue to flourish in an environment of change, it must. While they may continue to function in an environment where "failure is not an option," they must help team members, managers, marketers and senior management be attuned and alert to the very real risks that will evolve in the years to come.

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