You're in a meeting — maybe a phone meeting — with some powerful people who want you to explain why your project is struggling and late. There are good reasons why it's struggling and late, not the least of which is these daily meetings with powerful people who want you to explain why your project is struggling and late. The heat is on. Meeting after meeting follows the same pattern. They give you some task to do that they claim will get things sorted out. It takes twice as long as they want it to take, sometimes more than that. You report back the next day, and they're unhappier and more frustrated than they were the day before. Lather, rinse, repeat.
You're sick of it. How can you break this cycle?
One technique is to adopt the Columbo style of interaction. Lieutenant Columbo is a fictional homicide detective from a popular late 20th-century television series. He had an unusual personal style that was at once disarming and brilliant. By seeming to be casual, absent-minded, and not very clever, he tricked his suspects into revealing incriminating details that enabled him to solve the case. The characterization was so powerful and so effective that people write about his techniques to this day.
And his techniques can be very helpful in situations like the one described above. To make them work, you must adopt a self-deprecating stance that appears non-threatening. Present yourself as someone who's just a tad confused, and needs enlightening. But before I go too far with this, let me clarify something:
These powerful people, who are requiring daily meetings to "help straighten you out" on this project, are usually guilty of micromanagement, if not management malpractice. They don't know anywhere near as much about this project as you do. Their offense is manifested in their belief that even though you've worked on this problem for over a year, upon their discovery that you've run into some blocking issues, they can somehow parachute in and within a week or two clear it out by commanding you to execute three to five specific tasks that are only indirectly related to what's blocking you. In most cases that I've seen, the particular tasks prescribed for "shaking things loose" involve more frequent status reports, creating "dashboards," or changing the formats of status reports. And they always want daily meetings. It's goofy. It rarely works. It creates additional obstacles and chews up resources for very little return.
OK, I hope that's clear. Now back to Columbo.
The analogy between Columbo's situation and the project manager's
In project emergencies, the task of the put-upon project manager, whom I'll call Patricia (P = Project manager), is to guide the education of the members of the senior manager Emergency Reaction Force, whom I'll call ERFs. The ERFs must come to understand what the true blocking issues are. Then they must alter their own behavior to enable the people working the problem — Patricia and her team — to work the problem, assisting them as appropriate and as requested by Patricia and her team.
This To use the Columbo strategy
adopt a self-deprecating stance
that appears non-threateningsituation is analogous to Columbo's situation as he investigates murders. Columbo's suspect, whom I'll call Stan (S = Suspect), knows he has committed murder, and knows Lt. Columbo is investigating. But Stan is supremely confident that he can outwit Columbo, who seems like an incompetent fool. Stan feels superior to Columbo and isn't the least bit worried about Columbo discovering that Stan is the murderer.
So it is with the ERF, whose members believe that their abilities are far superior to Patricia's. They believe that the cause of the difficulty lies in Patricia's limited abilities. Despite having only cursory knowledge of the issues blocking Patricia's project, the members of the ERF are confident that they can easily discern the difficulties, and quickly devise actions to point Patricia and her team in the right direction. The ERF members aren't at all interested in Patricia's views about what the problems are or how difficult they may be.
How can Patricia re-educate the ERFs while under attack by them?
To address that question, I'll begin in this post by outlining the three basic principles of the Columbo strategy. Then in the next two posts, I'll describe Columbo's tactics for interviewing suspects, which, it turns out, also help Patricia when she's conversing with ERFs about why her project is in trouble. So, strategy first, to be followed by tactics. OK? OK.
Three basic principles of the Columbo strategy
- Keep the suspect calm and confident
- Columbo assiduously avoids alerting Stan to Columbo's suspicions that Stan is the murderer. Columbo is friendly, deferential, personable, and never threatening. He reveals nothing of his brilliance as a detective.
- Patricia adopts the same strategy with respect to the ERF. Although she's a brilliant project manager and risk manager, she never criticizes the orders she receives from the ERF, directly or indirectly. She lets the members of the ERF maintain their delusion that they understand the project, project management, and what ails this project, better than she does.
- Maintaining this stance can be difficult for anyone, especially if the ERFs are condescending, disrespectful, and grossly mistaken, as they often are. But Patricia is patient. She knows that what the ERFs believe about how to "fix" the project is wrong, and that they are about to be deliciously schooled. Her task is to wait, and let the project's reality teach the ERFs how much they ought to respect Patricia.
- Pretend to be seeking education for yourself
- As an investigator, Lt. Columbo must ask questions, and since Stan is the prime suspect, he must ask Stan questions. But he rarely questions Stan as if Stan were a suspect. Instead, he asks Stan for assistance in understanding the case. He lets Stan believe that Stan is Lt. Columbo's "consulting detective," helping Columbo crack the case.
- When Patricia asks questions about what the ERF directs her to do, she presents them as clarifications, rather than criticisms. Examples: "Help me understand, …" or "I'm a little confused…" Although the questions are often designed to show the ERFs how little they understand about the project and its obstacles, the ERFs always believe that they're helping Patricia become a more effective project manager.
- Seek explanations more than once
- Because the murderer is intent on remaining undetected, when Lt. Columbo questions his suspect Stan, Stan eventually lies. To uncover lies, Columbo asks Stan for explanations more than once. He doesn't always ask the same question more than once, but he does ask questions that cause Stan to misrepresent different aspects of the same circumstances. Because Stan hasn't prepared his lies in enough detail, Columbo eventually causes Stan to provide inconsistent explanations. Columbo then haltingly inquires about the inconsistency, which causes Stan to dig himself into the hole a little deeper.
- Patricia isn't dealing with murderers, but the members of the ERF are engaged in deception. They're attempting to present themselves as more knowledgeable than Patricia about how to rescue her project, when, in fact, they are not. They might also be deceiving themselves about this. In any case, if Patricia is to be successful in enlightening the ERF, she must find ways to make the ERFs' deceptions evident to them. Seeking explanations more than once is a strategy that can accomplish this. Just as Lt. Columbo does, Patricia doesn't seek identical explanations more than once. What she does is seek explanations about the same piece of the problem, but from different perspectives. When she finds inconsistencies, she asks about them, which reveals to the ERFs that they might not understand as much as they think they do.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.
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 Workplace Politics:
- More Stuff and Nonsense
- Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture.
These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help.
Here are some examples.
- Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends.
Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage.
Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- Organizational Loss: Searching Behavior
- When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming
the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational
- How to Deal with Holding Back
- When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened
and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
- Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others
can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.