Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 13;   March 30, 2005: See No Evil

See No Evil

by

When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance. And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.

Mark clicked to the next slide and paused, waiting for the explosion. Everyone at the table seemed to be reading and re-reading his conclusion, but none of them were exploding. So he began.

Two infants exchanging secrets

Photo (cc) abardwell

"The Review Team's conclusion is simple. We don't believe that Marigold can make any date before July…even August is doubtful. To get to 95% confidence, we think we have to go out to November."

There. He'd said it.

Lambert, both elbows on the conference table, leaned forward. He seemed to make eye contact with everyone around the table at once. "Well," he began, "before we sort this out, I need one thing. What we've just heard is not to be repeated to the rest of the team. Or anyone. Clear?"

By choosing secrecy, Lambert might be guiding the group into a see-no-evil mode, which could jeopardize the project. It's a risky course.

When a team shares all team-relevant information, it's functioning as an open system. A team that intentionally confines some information within small subgroups is functioning as a closed system.

To function at their potential,
teams must share all
team-relevant information
Both systems can work, provided that all team members are aware of the reality. But in project teams that are closed, team members are often unaware that they're closed. That is, the fact that the team is a closed system is itself a secret. And that disparity between reality and perception can lead to trouble. Even when team members are aware, closed systems face special risks. Here are just a few.

Increased risk of bad decisions
If team members believe that they have access to all information relevant to their own activities, when they actually don't, they might believe that they're making correct decisions and trade-offs when they actually aren't.
Infringing the personal freedoms of team members
Some information is so significant that it can affect personal decisions. For instance, if a fatal flaw is discovered, some team members might choose to move on to a new assignment. If the flaw is concealed, they might stay, thinking that all is well when it isn't.
Re-inventing the wheel
In closed systems, when someone discovers a problem and finds a workaround, there's a temptation to implement the workaround without revealing the problem. If the root of the problem is deep within the system, failing to reveal it prevents resolution at the root. Several people might discover the problem independently, each one implementing a separate — and possibly different — workaround.
Management problems
When a team is closed, and it hasn't discussed the choice to be open or closed, and when its culture professes the values of openness, any team members who discover the brutal truth could begin resenting the team leadership. They might feel manipulated and alienated, and their behavior might lead to management problems.

It's tempting to contain problems until we have repairs underway. But the tactic can be misleading and disrespectful, creating problems even bigger than the ones we were trying to avoid. Leaders who conceal truth from others lead others to conceal truth from them. Go to top Top  Next issue: Email Ethics  Next Issue

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See also Project Management, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
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When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.

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