A project is only as sick as its secrets

By Doug DeCarlo

It was Dr. Mignon Lawless, a psychotherapist friend of mine, who first introduced me to the concept expressed in the title of this article. Actually, I've taken a little creative license. Her exact words were, "You are only as sick as your secrets."

Projects are often riddled with secrets, those unmentionables that sap energy from people and raise the level of risk.

Here are a few popular examples of where one can find secrets:
  • Schedule reporting: knowingly stating a rosier-than-true picture
  • Cooking the books (e.g., playing accounting games with cost allocations)
  • Covering up or making excuses for others (e.g., a subcontractor)
  • Covering up for yourself
  • Withholding information that would normally be used to terminate the project
  • Not stating what you really think and feel
Why have secrets?

In a workshop I was conducting, I innocently asked the participants to give the group some examples of how they go about reporting on the status of a project in their organization. I specifically asked, "How do you respond when management asks you how the project is going?" Joanne piped up and said, "I say 'just fine'."

Joanne's organization had developed KMS, the affliction better known as Kill the Messenger Syndrome. She had been led to believe that delivering bad news was potentially harmful to her health. Soon, a conspiracy of silence would surround all projects.

Let's hear it for the messenger

No only does KMS increase project risk, it has repercussions on the personal level. At the very least, it drains energy, not unlike trying to hold a beach ball under water for a prolonged period. On projects, this may result in finding ourselves in a constant state of stress, anxiety or depression. Eventually, the unwillingness to assert the truth and its impact on our emotional state will express itself in the form of physical ailments.

Robert Bolton, in his book People Skills, acknowledges that one might experience negative results (for being assertive), but goes on to say that "drastic results rarely occur as a result of effective assertion... and the assertive person tends to become more impactful and successful at work."

I killed the messenger (and the messenger was me)

You may have experienced your own internal conflict when you withheld bad news. On one side, there's a voice inside of you that's whispering, "Speak up. Speak up." Then, a second voice -- the one with the gun - says, "Shut up. Shut up." The first voice, is your own internal messenger. The "shut up" voice... well that's the part of you that kills your messenger voice. So, the murder - if we let it happen -- actually takes place inside our head, long before anyone in the outside world is even in a position to pull the trigger. We beat them to it.

The real tragedy is not when they kill the messenger, but rather, when I kill the messenger, and the messenger (of the truth) is me, myself and I.

If you've read this far, go one step further and ask yourself:
  • What are the two or three biggest unmentionables about a project you're presently a part of?
  • What impact are these having on you and on the project?
  • If you wanted to, how could you bring this out into the open in a way that it would be acted upon?
  • What's preventing you from doing that?
  • How can you get over this hurdle?
The very nature of project management, in my humble opinion, is that it challenges the core of what it means to be human. As such, I see our noble profession as a platform for personal growth. And telling the truth as one sees it is a good starting point.

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