July 12th, 2010
When a project manager “sinner” sits down to talk with his or her IT “confessor-priest,” one of two situations usually exists: either the sin has already been committed — i.e., the project manager has already made a mistake — or it has not. We’ll discuss these two situations in separate blog postings.
Assuming that the conversation takes place after a mistake has been made, the confessor-priest should first ask how recent it was. If the mistake was made within the past day or two, it’s possible that it can be corrected/fixed/recovered; more about that in a moment. But in any case, it will still be fresh in everyone’s mind, and it will be considered “relevant” to all concerned. By contrast, suppose the project manager says to the confessor-priest, “This has been troubling me for months, and I have to get it off my chest: six months ago, I gave my key software engineer a performance review without any salary increase at all, because I was too chicken to fight for it with my VP…” Chances are that (a) it’s too late to do anything about it, and (b) the VP won’t remember or care if you decide to bring the issue up now, in an attempt to rectify the situation.
Obviously, one of the main things that confessor-priest needs to figure out is just how “serious” the mistake is (or was). It’s one thing for the project manager to say, “I made a mistake, and our 12-month project is going to be a day late.” It’s something else entirely if the project manager says, “I lost my temper, yelled at the whole project team at the top of my voice, and called them a bunch of childish idiots. When I came into the office this morning, I discovered that every single one of them has quit and left town — and they erased every bit of technical work they did from day one of the project.”
Also, as suggested above, the confessor-priest needs to determine whether the mistake is “recoverable.” Quite a few project-management mistakes turn out to be “human” issues — inopportune statements, insults, jokes, or comments that may have offended a subordinate or a superior. Left to fester, the mistake could have grave consequences; but a timely and sincere apology can often undo the damage, and perhaps even lead to a better working relationship in the future. (I emphasize “sincere” here, because I’ve noticed an all-too-common tendency, perhaps made palatable by politicians, movie stars, and other public figures, to say something utterly outrageous in public, and then offer a bland, passive-voice pseudo-apology along the lines of, “I regret that X was said. It should not have happened….”)
Unfortunately, sometimes the mistake cannot be undone — at least, not with the resources at the disposal of the errant project manager, and not even with the assistance of the confessor-priest. If the entire project team really did quit, and if they’ve got better-paying jobs working for a competitor, it may not be possible to get them back again. If the project manager failed to carry out the required risk-management planning, and didn’t have a contingency plan when something went utterly wrong (a certain oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico comes to mind…), there may not be any practical way to plug the leak, repair the damage, and get things back on course.
All of this typically leads to one of four recommended actions on the part of the confessor priest, when the project-manager “sinner” describes the details of the mistake that he or she has made:
- ignore it — some mistakes really aren’t that bad. And some are “mistakes” only in the sense that they violate bureaucratic rules that had no meaningful impact on the project anyway
- fix it — it may cost money, it may take time, and it may take extra work — but many mistakes really can be rectified. Of course, the sooner you acknowledge it, and the sooner you ask for help and/or begin taking remedial action, the better off you are.
- ask for forgiveness, and vow never to do it again — if the mistake was a human-relations blunder of some kind (e.g., needlessly annoying/insulting a key member of the project team), it may be sufficient to grovel and beg for forgiveness. I find it amazing how rarely management-level people are willing to publicly (and sincerely!) acknowledge their mistakes; more often, they try to stonewall the situation, and bluff their way through it. But asking for forgiveness often works only once; the second time you tell your spouse that you’ve had an affair, and that you’re terribly sorry and really won’t do it again … well, it’s not likely to be very convincing.
- acknowledge defeat — hopefully it won’t happen very often, but let’s face it: sometimes you make a mistake that’s really serious, non-recoverable, and completely unacceptable no matter how much groveling and apologizing you do. If you were the Apple engineer that left the iPhone4 prototype behind in the bar a few months ago, chances are the best thing you could do would be to write a short, polite resignation letter and shove it under Steve Jobs’ door. But even here, sooner is better than later; and taking ownership/responsibility for the mistake (rather than making excuses, or trying to blame it on someone else) is the honorable thing to do.
Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what the IT confessor-priest should do if the project-manager sinner warns him of a mistake that he or she is tempted to commit, but has not yet actually committed…