Honesty in project management

July 2011 » Columns » PROJECT MANAGEMENT INSIGHTS
Christine Brack, PMP

My friend David is working on a large design-build project in the Middle East. The firms involved are located all across the globe and the project teams look like a mini-United Nations. David works directly for the client and is managing the design review process for approximately 17 new buildings.

His primary responsibility is to review plans and ensure that new buildings are safe and practical. He manages deliverables and checklists on a daily basis and constantly exchanges information between his team of reviewers and the design-builder. For 17 buildings on a fast-track schedule, that—€™s a lot of stuff.

We were talking recently about the worst things that can happen in project management and agreed that dishonesty takes the top prize. No matter where it comes from —€” the client, architect, engineer, contractor, consultants, user groups, or agencies —€” realizing you—€™ve been lied to (or about) is a bad experience. He—€™s seeing a lot of it on this project, but it can happen on any project.

Aside from ethical and moral issues, there are business costs of dishonesty. Whether the project is small or large, here are some notes on honesty to consider:

  • Everyone knows. A simple lie may get someone through a meeting or two, but there won—€™t be another chance. Weak links are detected quickly. The person, firm, or entity with weekly excuses for why promised things weren—€™t accomplished will soon be known as untrustworthy and a peril to the rest of the teams. And a few bad apples can affect an entire organization. For example, the entire design-build firm on David—€™s project has developed an unfortunate reputation even though just two people are the real culprits.
  • —€œI never received that.—€ With today—€™s technology, it—€™s amazing people still try this, but they do —€” they—€™re the same people who had homework-eating dogs in grammar school. This is a particularly poor choice of lie because it—€™s implausible, and it suggests someone else didn—€™t do their job. Not only is that unprofessional, it—€™s tacky. Ignoring a document, e-mail, or voice message is not the same as never receiving it. David no longer e-mails important files —€” he brings them physically to the meeting and hand delivers them. You also can increase accountability by including others in the transmittal, for example by CCing a third party in an e-mail.
  • Caught in the act. When you have a serial liar on the team and booting them off the project is not an option, what can you do? It seems ridiculous to spend time counteracting someone else—€™s games and untruthfulness, but if the problem isn—€™t addressed, the lies will continue and you can lose control of the project quickly. David comes to the meetings with a paper trail of the most critical e-mails and the project directory so he can make calls quickly to validate or negate potential lies. He also forwards meeting minutes to the perpetrator—€™s boss.
  • Just fess up. As politicians sometimes learn to their chagrin, it—€™s not the original mistake that causes problems —€¦ it—€™s the cover up. Our fears of client, colleague, and project team reactions are usually exaggerated. Owning up to a mistake or missed deadline will win more respect than squirming out of responsibility by telling lies. We may even find that they are willing to help or adjust timeframes. As mentioned previously, people know when someone is lying, so stop making things worse. As a skilled project manager, David is able to find workarounds if things aren—€™t moving or happening as planned, but only if he knows what—€™s happening. Bad surprises don—€™t make us any friends.
  • The truth always comes out. No further comment needed on this one.

Not telling the truth doesn—€™t buy time, it wastes it —€” for everyone. Resending information, researching who said what and when, asking dozens of questions to root out lies and excuses —€” all of that takes time and energy; time and energy that would be better spent getting stuff done.

Owning up to a mistake or missed deadline will win more respect than squirming out of responsibility by telling lies.

Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite who specializes in strategic business planning and project management optimization. She can be contacted at cbrack@zweigwhite.com.

Read more about project management at www.aectechstrategies.com/project-management.html


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