Ask first before it

It’s amazing to me how much activity (too much of it panicked, unfocussed scrambling) can result from the simple, off-the-cuff rumination of a senior executive.

Someone carrying a senior or executive vice-president title and maybe a little gray hair can express a thought, a potential avenue of exploration, or maybe even just a fast and loose idea, and we’ll go into scramble mode. We’ll work long hours to restructure our previously-well-thought-out plans, all in order to show that we heard and heeded the perceived gift of executive insight that has been floated down to us.

The bad news is that executives think out loud just like we do, and they sometimes have certifiably crazy ideas that should really never cross their lips, just like we do too.

The difference, of course, is that when we say something off the wall, when we give voice to a half-baked idea, our peers (quite correctly) feel comfortable enough to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that we’re crazy.

With executives, we sometimes think that anything they say must be the corporate equivalent of well-thought-out management wisdom, and that we should make haste to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The fact is, sometimes these folks are really just thinking out loud, and they’d be dismayed if they knew the amount of work that their (in their mind) casual comments can touch off.

I’ve seen it first hand. I remember being in a project plan review meeting with a senior operations vice-president who started speculating out loud about the potential of a new technology he’d just read about, and what impact that technology might have on the project at hand. We (the IT folks) knew that the stuff he’d read about was nowhere near ready for prime time, and that adopting it at that point would be a major mistake.

We knew it, but I could still see the team getting that look in their eyes, the one that said we’d have to review everything about our carefully constructed project plan in light of the vice-president’s technology observation, even if it took us all night.

Having been there and having done that, I didn’t want to do it again. Sucking up my courage (hey, I was just a low-level analyst, and he was a senior vice-president I hadn’t met before), I asked him, “How much time do you think we should spend reviewing this new technology as a potential for this project?”

He looked at me as if he’d never been asked the question before. “None,” he said. “I know you guys have looked at what you’re doing carefully — I was just thinking out loud.”

I kicked myself for not being brave enough to ask the question more often.

When I recalled the story to that same vice-president a couple of years later, he expressed dismay at how much work could be touched off by a single comment. “I guess I should watch what I say, hey?”

Not really — he shouldn’t feel obligated to think out loud any less, or even to predicate his comments with a “Don’t go to a lot of work here” disclaimer.

It’s up to us to be critical (in the positive sense of the word) consumers of management insight. Most of the execs I know would never claim to have all the answers, and prefer it when staff actively seek clarification.

I’ve often said that Columbo would have been a great IT project manager — he’d ask right up front: “Did I understand you to say that you want us to take the time and effort necessary to take a close look at this thing you’re talking about?”

The smart IT professional knows enough to get the clarification up front, before a stack of unplanned work lands in their lap.

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at