Beth looked at Philippe. Philippe looked at Jim. Jim looked at Beth. When they realized what they were doing, they all chuckled. "You. No you. No you," said Beth. "Seriously," she continued, "someone has to tell him."
Jim was more serious. "It's a suicide mission. You know how he always says 'no surprises' in all caps. I don't think I'll be the one."
Philippe had an idea. "There must be some way to spin this so it isn't so awful sounding," he said.
Beth, Jim, and Philippe are trying to figure out a way to break some bad news to somebody who evidently has a well advertised "no surprises" policy. They might find a way this time, but "no surprises" is a risky way to run things. Here's a little of what can go wrong with a "no surprises" policy.
- Too broad a message
- If your policy is "no surprises," then you're saying that you don't want any good surprises either. Probably you don't mean that.
- It's an unattainable goal
- Surprises are inevitable in projects. Operations and projects differ in that projects are unique and first-of-a-kind. Surprises are the essence of project work.
- When a surprise does happen, you have a new problem
- If your policy is "no surprises," and a surprise happens, you have two problems. Not only do you have to deal with the surprise, but you also have a violation of policy. Because policy violations usually require disciplinary action, the policy itself creates a problem.
- People find workarounds
- A "no surprises" policy
could create some
- Above, Philippe is about to suggest that they slant the truth to avoid the surprising bad news. Slanting the truth is almost always a bad idea.
Instead of "no surprises," why not ask for what you really need? Some possibilities:
- No surprises — really
- If this is what you need, then unique, first-of-a-kind projects aren't within your reach. Instead, move into an operational role, where everything you do is like something done before. Surprises are less common in operations.
- Keep me so well informed that I know whatever you know
- This would be nice, if it weren't micromanagement. It's so intrusive that it's irritating for everyone involved. And if two people in an organization know all the same things, one of them is redundant.
- If it's a surprise to me, it should be a surprise to you, too
- This is more reasonable, and it's what you probably need, too, provided you allow for the pace of events exceeding anyone's ability to keep you up to date. Allow a reasonable time lag between others' learning of the event and their passing it along to you.
There will always be surprises, and here's one: The trick for dealing with surprises is not to avoid them, but to get really good at recovering from them. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
- Alex S. Brown (www.alexsbrown.com)
- At first read, I was surprised that your column was against a "No Surprises" policy. I often emphasize this point to my own staff.
- The more I read, though, the better I understood. The column makes good points about overly controlling, impossible policies. When I need "no surprises" on a project, I mean something like the "if it's a surprise to me, it should be to you" version.
- The way I explain it is, "If I am going to hear about something on your project and it will surprise me, I want to hear it from you first. If you are not sure whether I will be surprised or whether I will hear about it, err on the side of caution: tell me about it. If you are sure I will be surprised, tell me about it as soon as you can." People take a couple of weeks to figure out what is important and what is not, but it seems to build an open relationship quickly. Also, because it emphasizes "You tell me about it," people know that I want them to tell me about bad news and quickly.
- I bet the fictional manager in your story also suffers from the "shoot the messenger" syndrome. No matter what official policies you have, people will never tell you bad news if you punish the people who bring the news. Personally, I just ask them for solutions, and give them help and support if they need it. So far, it has worked well for me.
- Thanks for another thought-provoking column. — Alex
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path.
We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
- A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff
- As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are
toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
- Creating Toxic Conflict: I
- Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates.
Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
- Still More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's another batch
from my personal collection.
- Paradoxical Policies: I
- Although most organizational policies are constructive, many are outdated or nonsensical, and some are
actually counterproductive. Here's a collection of policies that would be funny if they weren't real.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
- You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
- I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
- A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
- …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.