Every profession has unspoken agreements and dark little secrets. In the world of project management and PMO’s our objective is to make projects more “transparent” and measurable, so that projects can be more successful. You might say that one of the basic goals of project management is to make project work more honest. Yet even PMO managers have their little secrets. The most important secret of every PMO, a secret that every project manager MUST understand, is that every member of a project team is a LIAR! Horrible, isn’t it? Here you are, trying to make the world a better place and your entire team is lying to you, hiding information, exaggerating results, “forgetting” to bring up important details and being deceptive. Sorry… I lied. There TWO important secrets you must understand if you operate a PMO. The first is that everyone on your project team is LIAR. The second secret is… SO ARE YOU!
As a society, we like to believe that lies are the exception, and that people who lie frequently must be aberrant, even mentally unstable. But this just isn’t so. In an excellent presentation on TED Talks, Pamela Meyer (the author of “Liespotting”) tells us that we are programmed to lie. Even babies lie. Meyer tells us that when babies left alone in a room are videotaped, some will cry until someone arrives and others do something different. They crying and then looking around to see if anyone responds; then they cry again and wait. This is fake crying, a lie to make parents pay attention to the baby. (OK… parents out there… in your heart you always suspected this, didn’t you!) Meyers also tells us that teen-age girls lie to their mothers in 1 out of 5 conversations (a little bit less of a surprise here?).
According to Meyer, the average person lies 10 to 200 times a day! How do we even have the energy to think up 200 lies every day? The answer lies in a recent psychology study, where subjects were spoken to for 10 minutes while being videotaped. All the subjects stated that they were 100% truthful, yet a review of the tapes showed that 60% of the subjects told at least one lie. When the subjects looked at the videotape, they were stunned to find that they told lies! They did not remember lying. So we can add one more lie to our long list of deceptions… we even lie to ourselves. It’s not surprising that corporate executive’s lie (take Enron), political figures lie (take your pick!), and every project team is filled with liars.
There are a lot of reasons why we lie: to protect ourselves, to protect others, to prevent others from misunderstanding the facts, to avoid punishment, to get something we want, or to keep a previous lie hidden. Lies vary from the tiniest white lie to real whoppers. The problem is that when we tell a lie we may think many lies are very small and very innocent. The reality is once a lie is out in the open, we don’t know how long a lie will persist or how big it will grow. Not convinced? Consider these classics: “We have indisputable evidence that Iraq has WMDs”, “Monica Lewinski? Who’s Monica Lewinski?”, “It may be a new fund, but take Bernie Madoff’s word, it’s as solid as a rock!” Meyers tells us that the cost of corporate lying is the US just under $1 trillion a year!
If lies are so deeply embedded in the human psyche, what can a project manager do to ensure honesty and truthfulness on the project team? I doubt if you can eliminate very single misleading statement, but there are ways that you can inject a little honesty into your project meetings:
- Ground Rules: When a project starts out and you set the ground rules, spend a few minutes on the concept of honesty and how it’s necessary for the operation of the team. Keep it lighthearted, but let everyone know that your expectation is that everyone will feel free to tell the truth, and to call-out team members when they aren’t truthful. Don’t just say you are going to do this, let the team vote on it. Do a secret ballot first, a simple yes or no vote on a slip of paper. If its unanimous, memorialize this (but don’t dwell on it) in the minutes. If there are any “no” votes, you need to explore the problem and move the group to a unanimous vote for honesty.
- Accountability: Groups are harder to hold accountable than individuals, and where there is no clear ownership there is no accountability. Wherever your team has not defined accountability, lies… especially lies of omission… tend to pile up. Keep accountability high, and make sure that specific individuals are accountable whenever possible.
- Transparency: We lie because lies often work. In an environment where the truth is ambiguous, lies are easier to justify and become more frequent. Make sure that the metrics your team created are honest. If projects are consistently finishing below budget and ahead of schedule, then your team’s fear of failure has led to heavily padded estimates. If projects are consistently late and over-budget, a lack of confidence is resulting in unrealistic estimates that temporarily satisfy clients or managers. Train your project managers to use historical project information to push back on project estimates.
- Trust: Liars make choices about who they lie to, and often complain that they were pressured into lying. Make sure that you and your project managers are seen as honest, and resources that team members can turn to if they are in a situation that could lead to a lie. Make sure that the team can anonymously report on their experiences on a project team, if they felt that they could be totally honest, and if the experience changed how they view the firm and their own management style.
- Practice: Lead by example. Be honest. Ensure that your project managers are honest with your team. After a while, people will learn that when they work with your PMO, dishonest team members just don’t have as good an experience as they could. Even individuals who make the cost economical use of truth will learn to splurge a little on a project team.
Lying is a part of being human. We can’t stop people from lying, but we can create an environment where honesty is more rewarding than lying. Remember, a lie takes at least people. If you don’t accept a mistruth it destroys the lie. Lies, misinformation and lack of information all have a high cost for your projects. Keep your teams honest and you will keep your projects cost effective. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!