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Dismissal, denial and disbelief – part 1

Scott Ambler published an interesting survey in 2007 (Dr Dobbs survey). One of the questions asked people if they had ever participated in a project which they knew, right from the start, was going to fail. Of the 538 respondents, 70% answered yes. Even making some allowance for the inaccuracies inherent in any survey, that’s a staggering result. How could so many projects proceed when at least some of those involved knew serious problems lay ahead?

It’s a phenomenon I’ve come across many times myself. Most failures are not only predictable, but as Scott’s findings show, many failures are in fact predicted.  In most cases, although concerns were raised, those voicing apprehension were dismissed as naysayers.

The dismissal of dissent is part of a dangerous pattern of behaviour that lies behind many project failures. Often the problems arise at the most senior of levels. For whatever reason, senior resources charged with making critical decisions, make their decisions without tapping into the pool of knowledge that lies beneath them on the hierarchy.

For me, the question behind Scott’s findings is the question of why senior levels persist in either ignoring the advice that comes from below or why in many cases, they simply fail to solicit any input at all. I’m sure there are many reasons and likely some of the following factors come into play;

  1. Lack of trust
  2. Plain old arrogance
  3. Underestimating the risk that their decisions entail
  4. The assessment (correct or not) that those labelled as naysayers lack the experience to be raising the objections
  5. A sense that because I’m at a senior level, only I have the big picture view in which these decisions need to be made.

Whatever the causes those at the senior level need to be careful in the critical decisions they make. As a manager it’s not your job to know everything. It is however your job to leverage the knowledge of those who work with you. My advice is simple. Solicit the input, hear the dissent. Fundamentally everyone wants to see success and only by listening to opinions are you able to find a way forward that will ultimately lead to success.

In the second part of this post next week, we’ll look at the next stage in this pattern of behaviour, the denial stage that arises when serious problems begin to surface.

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