You're working on a high-risk project, and the VP of Marketing wants you to reassure the product manager that you'll meet the promised delivery date. Or you've been tasked to find out why one of the company's products was recalled, and the CEO wants to know whether a repetition could ever happen. Or some other embarrassing event has occurred, and it has fallen to you to find a path forward. Isaac, who was in the lead of whatever unit got into such a mess (if the event is in the past), or who is in the lead of the unit that could create a future mess, has asked you to "please reassure them," that everything will be OK and all is well.
Isaac has given you his word that all will be well. That's nice, but very far from good enough. If you do as Isaac asks, your career is at risk.
Here are some guidelines for avoiding your own entanglement in the looming failure you've been charged with investigating.
- Understand your personal risks
- Although your role as investigator is legitimate on the surface, it's possible that your real task is to provide the answer almost everyone wants: everything will be OK. If there's strong evidence that everything will be OK, the risk to you is small. But unless you have access to independent, objective expertise, or unless you're qualified — and permitted and able — to assess the evidence yourself, you'll be relying on the judgments of others if you declare the situation under control. That could be a very risky act indeed.
- Nobody can predict the future
- Assurances Although your role as investigator
is legitimate on the surface, it's
possible that your real task is to
provide the answer almost everyone
wants: everything will be OKof the 100% kind about future events, from absolutely anyone, no matter how respected or expert, are so much bilge water. Nothing about the future is 100% predictable. There's always a small chance of the unexpected occurring. The Titanic was widely believed to be "practically unsinkable."
- When you receive such 100% assurances, ask probing questions of the person providing the assurances. Start with, "How can you be 100% certain of anything involving the future?" And get their responses in writing. Such things look a whole lot dumber in print than they sound in person.
- Be judicious in your reporting
- If you can't persuade Isaac to be more circumspect, then gather enough information to provide a foundation for a report along the lines of, "They seem convinced that all will be well, but I couldn't find hard data strong enough to support their claims."
- You probably aren't free to refuse to pass Isaac's claims along, but you're certainly free to include your own assessment along with Isaac's claims. In formulating your own assessment, be careful to restrict it to facts. Unless you have justification, you really can't say that Isaac's claims are false. But you probably can say that you haven't found support for Isaac's claims.
When you do provide the result of your investigation, take care to be explicit if you're merely passing along the judgments of others. Express your projections in terms of probabilities, quantified to the extent possible. If you can supply percentages, do so, but otherwise use phrases like, "strong likelihood," or "small chance." For example, you could say that there's a 90% chance that things are OK.
If in your judgment a report about the uncertain future is required to make predictions without reference to probabilities or chance, there's an elevated likelihood that you've been cast in the role of someone to be blamed in case all does not go well. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
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