They can’t handle the truth

Have you ever had to deal with managers or users who were sceptical about the time and effort a piece of work would take? Have you ever complained in vain about a project that was clearly doomed to fail right from the start? Have you ever felt that a project was being planned on the basis of totally unjustified optimism?

If you’ve been in IT for a while there’s a good chance you’ve answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. Over the years I grew wearily familiar with the pattern of willful refusal to consider anything but the happy path to a smooth, speedy delivery of everything on the wish list, within a comical budget that is challenging I admit, but realistic if we all pull together.

Over time I gradually came to realise that many senior managers and stakeholders didn’t want the truth. They want the fiction, to be lied to because knowing the truth would make them responsible for dealing with it. In their world it is better to be deceived and then firefight a failing project than to deal honestly with likely problems and uncertainty. Above all, they can’t bring themselves to deal with the truth of uncertainty. It is far more comfortable to pretend that uncertainty is evidence of lack of competence, that problems can be anticipated, that risks can be ignored or managed out of existence, that complexity can be eliminated by planning and documentation (and by standards).

Telling the truth – a brave act in an unfair world

Perhaps the toughest roles in IT are those that are senior enough to be accountable for the results, but too junior to beat uncomfortable truths into the brains of those who really don’t want to know.

These budding fall guys have the nous and experience to see what is going to happen. One of the rarely acknowledged skills of these battle scarred veterans is the ability to judge the right moment and right way to start shouting the truth loudly. Reveal all too early and they can be written off as negative, defeatist, “not a team player”. Reveal it too late and they will be castigated for covering up imminent failure, and failing to comply with some standard or process. Everyone fails to comply. Not everyone is going to be kicked for it, but late deliverers of bad news are dead meat.

Of course that’s not fair, but that’s hardly the point. Fairness isn’t relevant if the culture is one where rationality, prudence and pragmatism all lead to crazy behaviour because that is what is rewarded. People rationally adapt to the requirement to stop thinking when they see others being punished for honesty and insight.

What is an estimate?

So what’s the answer? The easy one is, “run, and run fast”. Get out and find a healthier culture. However, if you’re staying then you have to deal with the problem of handling senior people who can’t handle the truth.

It is important to be clear in your own mind about what you are being asked for when you have to estimate. Is it a quote? Is there an implied instruction that something must be delivered by a certain date? Are there certain deliverables that are needed by that date, and others that can wait? Could it be a starting point for negotiation? See this article I wrote a few years ago.

Honesty is non-negotiable

It’s a personal stance, but honesty about uncertainty and the likelihood of serious but unforeseeable problems is non-negotiable. I know others have thought I have a rather casual attitude towards job security and contract renewal! However, I can’t stomach the idea of lingering for years in an unhealthy culture. And it’s not as if honesty means telling the senior guys who don’t want the truth that they are morons (even if they are).

Honesty requires clear thinking, and careful explanation of doubt and uncertainty. It means being a good communicator, so that the guys who take the big decisions have a better understanding that your problems will quickly become their problems. It requires careful gathering of relevant information if you are ordered into a project death march so that you can present a compelling case for a rethink when there might still be time for the senior managers and stakeholders to save face. Having the savvy to help the deliberately ignorant to handle the truth really is a valuable skill. Perhaps Jack Nicholson’s character from “A Few Good Men” isn’t such a great role model, however. His honesty in that memorable scene resulted in him being arrested!


8 thoughts on “They can’t handle the truth

  1. It’s as if Fred Brooks didn’t write The Mythical Man-Month 40 years ago and, even if he did write it and the book was published, nobody seemed to read it.

    • People did read it, then they retired. Maybe there’s an unwillingness in IT to distinguish between old stuff that’s no longer relevant and truths that last through the ages. Any lessons that relate to human nature are likely to be lasting: people don’t change. Brooks’ lessons fall into that category.

      I’ve found it depressing seeing people learn hard lessons that I saw an earlier generation having to learn in the 80s when I started. No doubt at that time there were veterans moaning that we were repeating the errors they’d seen a couple of decades earlier.

  2. Agree 100%. A common issue in my experience is that evidence is irrelevant to many PMs, they ignore the facts, and just push on to the delivery dates, putting more and more pressure on testing.
    I work for a consultancy, and they care only for the buck, and little about quality of their delivery. I’ve never worked for such an incompetent company before.

    • Shudder. That’s horribly familiar. To be fair to project management as a profession the good PMs can face exactly the same problems I’ve described when they’re assigned to an impossible task. It’s not restricted to development either. I’ve seen similar problems in other sorts of contracts, which were doomed from the start. Success wasn’t a matter of providing a neat, profitable outcome. It was all about damage limitation and trying to do enough to stop getting sued.

  3. Great article!
    When starting out as a tester I believed devs couldn’t handle the truths about their baby being not as beautiful as they thought. After needing to give estimates to PMs I realised testers and devs sit in the same boat and the ‘enemy’ picture shifted.
    The advise ‘know thy enemy’ sounded reasonable so I took PM training and worked closely with them only to find out that we’re sitting in the same boat once more.
    Similar story with senior managers but what occurred to me is that the lack of understanding lead to me thinking about enemies. Bad or no communication about ones own goals, values and problems leads to the problems you describe which is kind of ironic if one remembers that we work in ‘information technology’. (The improved communication is one reason why real agile teams are successful in my view)
    If you then add machiavellian personalities to the picture which results in the wrong (learned) behaviour in people around them it’s no wonder people can’t handle the truth (anymore). This ‘anymore’ to me is important because it indicates that it’s reversible which is where the experienced testers and other IT people come in.

  4. Thanks Thomas. That’s a very interesting comment. The point about learned behaviour is important. Good people are often trained to act like idiots. That’s rewarded and honest, responsible behaviour is punished,

    In my younger days I was guilty of not passing up the news that a task was impossible because I knew it would be neither believed nor welcomed. So I went along with the fiction and was then criticised for not speaking up earlier. I had naively believed that everyone knew the truth and was just pretending, like me, that the task was achievable by the target date and within the budget. I hadn’t allowed for the fact that people really had persuaded themselves everything was going to be fine.

    The real challenge isn’t really picking the right moment to shout the truth. The challenge is to do it in the right way so that you’ve the best chance of being heard. Doing that early is always better than doing it later.

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