Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Project Management Woes


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Confrontations

QDear Authors,

I am working on a project that is seriously behind schedule—in part because the goals are too ambitious for the amount of power we have. As a result, everyone is very stressed out—including my boss. Recently, my boss started making snap decisions and then saying things like “Just do it” and “I don’t want to argue with you.” He knows a lot, and I respect his opinion greatly. But he also has to oversee many projects, and does not have the complete information on this one.

Recently he made a quick decision. I did some more research, and tried to come back with my concerns, saying, “Can we revisit the decision made last week?” The answer was “No way, I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t care what the data says—it’s crap and you have to do the right thing.” While I understand that we need to make decisions quickly and implement them, I am afraid that ultimately it will hurt the project. What is the best way to deal with it short of just falling silent—which I am doing now and not liking.

Wanting to Make a Difference

A Dear Difference,

Your boss is lucky to have you.

A recent VitalSmarts poll showed that over three-fourths of employees are in your predicament right now. They are working on projects they believe are at serious risk. The problem is that over 80 percent say that approaching decision makers to have the crucial conversation is almost impossible!

This, my friend, is why 80-90 percent of projects end up with disappointing results.

Because this is such a pervasive problem, and has such a profound effect on vital organizational initiatives across the world, I’d like to take a little freedom with your question. I’d like to offer two resources to you and all the readers who are in your situation right now.

The first is a powerful influence strategy you can use to get attention for the need to foster much more candid dialogue about project problems. Go to the Web site There you’ll have free access to the findings from our global study of project successes and failures. We’ve seen project professionals use this report to generate awareness of the culture of silence that contributes to most project failures. Download it and pass it around to start a discussion about this problem. When you step back from your current problem and comment using this report as a broader pattern, you avoid the defensiveness others may feel if they believe you’re just complaining. Sharing the overall problems with the kinds of behavior you’re seeing can help build support for dealing with the root cause of problems.

Second, I’d like to offer ten tips to everyone struggling to speak up about project risks. Many of them apply to your specific problem. But I hope that all of them are useful to readers facing a variety of project challenges.

1. Gather facts and question your hunches. Cynicism is the order of the day in most companies, so it’s fashionable to predict failure. It can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people believe a project will fail they withhold effort—contributing to the project’s failure. Avoid becoming part of the problem by carefully gathering facts about the project’s status and weaknesses—as well as its strengths. Thoughtfully compare these conditions to past successes and failures and be willing to admit when project problems are not a matter of life or death.

2. Challenge your boss, first and most. Sometimes it can be hard to speak up about problems with a project when that project is being headed by your immediate boss. However, don’t take the easy way out by criticizing your boss to others when you haven’t spoken with the boss about the issue directly. And be sure when you do disagree with your boss, you are 100 percent candid while remaining 100 percent respectful. Many people give themselves much higher marks for candor than the actual conversation shows. They sugarcoat and understate their concerns with the boss, then report later to others that they were absolutely honest. The best way to honor your boss is with the truth. So be as candid with him or her as you would be with others on the project.

3. Document your communication and register disagreement. If your boss disagrees on your assessment of project risks, or there is a likelihood your concerns will be filtered on the way up the chain of command, be sure to save e-mails documenting the feedback you gave. You need to do this for two reasons: 1) To drive learning. If it turns out you were right, it’s important that you be able to provide evidence that bad results were predictable—and, therefore, potentially avoidable; 2) To protect yourself. If blame is assessed later you are fully within your rights to produce evidence that you did your level best. Also, once you’ve registered and documented your disagreements, swallow your pride and get behind your leaders. Don’t set your boss up by pretending to go along then producing evidence of disagreement later. Let him or her know you “disagree and commit.”

4. Keep your boss in the loop. If you are participating in a project cross-functionally, you are within your rights to consider sharing feedback independent of the chain of command. However, make sure you cover your bases (and rear) by letting your boss know when you’re making controversial statements that could come back to him or her.

5. Separate “whether” and “how” questions with boss. If your boss agrees that the project is at risk but disagrees about raising a red flag, be sure when you discuss your concerns you separate these two questions. Many people make the mistake of talking to their boss about their concerns and not realizing the boss is disagreeing because he or she doesn’t want to make waves rather than because he or she thinks all is well. Play it smart by separating these two conversations. Secure agreement first about the real concerns. When you are both in agreement, brainstorm politically appropriate ways of raising the concerns. If you let these two concerns get muddled, you’ll force the boss to argue with you about project risks when you may really have no disagreement there.

6. Admit your own fallibility. Always remember that no matter how much experience you have, when it comes to complex projects the conversation is less about truth than probability. You may see risks differently than others do. Accept that you aren’t the sole possessor of truth. Not only that, but others may see a bigger picture than you and understand that risk to quality, for example, may be acceptable in order to get something to market quickly. Perhaps a B-quality project launched on time is better for larger reasons than an A-quality project launched a year from now. So keep an open mind when you’re looking for the facts.

7. Don’t exaggerate for effect. A resistant audience is looking for ways to poke holes in your data and argument. If you cross the line of exaggeration for effect, you become very vulnerable to others attacking your exaggeration. When this happens, you’ve lost your point. Your overstatement of your data becomes the issue rather than the risk you were trying to raise.

8. Motivate by sharing natural consequences. Consider the needs, interests and worries of those you’re addressing. Not everyone is motivated by flawless execution to the same degree. Help them see how both overall interests and their own will be affected by current policies.

9. Share conclusions tentatively. When you finish sharing your facts—the evidence you have for concern about the project—candidly share your conclusion. But describe it as your conclusion, not as a fact. Say, “Based on this analysis, I’m convinced we’re going to miss schedule” rather than “There’s no way we’ll make the schedule.” The first is stated as a conclusion. The second is a conclusion disguised as a fact. The first invites challenge and dialogue. The second provokes opposition.

10. Invite dialogue. The goal of your crucial conversation should be both to share and to learn. After sharing your tentative conclusions, influence with your ears—by listening intently to others’ views.

I wish you the best as you attempt to make a difference. The fact that you’re even asking this question is evidence that you want to do the right thing.


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