Get to the point, damn it

Do you have a reputation in your organization as a straight shooter and a clear speaker? Do you c clearly and strongly? If not, why not?

Someone I had lunch with last week told me that the best IT analysts he ever worked with “acted like two year olds.”

“And this is good because…?” I asked

“Because when you told them something, they’d always ask ‘Why'” he said, “and they’d keep asking until they got an answer that made sense to them.”

In your day-to-day business interactions, do you say things that make other people want to ask ‘Why’? Do you ask ‘Why’ enough yourself?

Good, clear questions: Why are we really doing this project? Is there any other reason beyond a VP thinking that this is a good idea? Why do we think this solution is better than any alternative?

I know a company that’s has a major project on the go and is trying hard to drive process and operational integration through the organization. A reflection of a deeper problem is that everyone involved in the project has persisted until recently in referring to the project as “the IT project” or the “J.D. Edwards project.”

My thinking is as follows: If the objective of the project is the integration of financial information so that decision makers have a better grip on costs throughout the company, why not call it something like the “Cost Information Integration Project?” Call it some name that reflects what it’s really trying to accomplish: who cares if it’s SAP or J.D. Edwards or Baan or PeopleSoft – who even really cares if technology is the change enabler? What is the sponsor really aiming for?

There are extreme examples of organizations and projects that just can’t get to the point: how about a project that has the ultimate objective of reducing staff count, sponsored by an executive who says “Let’s not get people upset by saying that out loud.”

In this type of project, communications are not only difficult but fundamentally dishonest, and they make the dangerous assumption that people in the organization don’t know what the executive is really up to, and are too stupid to figure it out. In my experience, both these assumptions are usually incorrect.

Let’s hear it for direct, unequivocal questions, and clear, unambiguous answers. Are you afraid of either one? In posing or answering a direct question, if you’re not personally insulting anyone, why wouldn’t you be direct? Would your organization fire you for asking the direct, clarifying question? For answering questions with the sometimes hard truth? If they would, are you really working for the kind of organization that you want to work for?

It seems to me that more people in our organizations than we’d have guessed actually know and understand the difficult truths about situations we all face, it’s just that most of us feel that the pain associated with speaking up outweighs the benefit of speaking loudly and clearly.

I think we tend to overstate the downside of our reticence. Unless you’re lying, terribly misguided (always check your facts before you make a brave stand or be ready to fall on your sword), or making personal character attacks, is it really likely that you’re going to get fired for speaking up? I didn’t think so.

In the IT business, in the IT business in this economy, are you really worried about your ability to find another job? If you’re really not intimidated by politics, if you could easily find a job elsewhere, what’s holding you back?

It all comes down to a question that you have to ask yourself over the long term: does it hurt me more to speak up strongly and clearly, or does it hurt me more to keep my head down?

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail