Who Burped?

Sometimes we need to express confidence in achieving a good outcome on our projects in the face of significant uncertainties.  If we look only at the uncertainties, our confidence is deflated to the point of inaction.  If we express confidence without acknowledging the uncertainties, we may be seen as not credible.

Our challenge as project managers on difficult projects is to be confident in the face of uncertainty in a credible way.  We want others to believe in our confidence, and others want their concerns acknowledged and believed as well.  Being believed is important to all of us.  I got a lesson in that this weekend while watching the grandkids.

I love my granddaughters.  There’s Nat, 8; Amby, 5; and Ashy, almost 2.  Marcia and I are taking care of them for a week while my son and wife enjoy a much deserved week off for their 10th anniversary.  The three of them are doing very well away from Mom and Dad.  Only the occasional flare up.  One yesterday got me thinking.

We had a fun Saturday afternoon playing in the back yard.  We have a big garden that needed lots of attention after we were away during a hot spell last week for my nephew’s wedding and a visit with my sister.  The girls love helping in the garden and building faerie houses in little clearings they’ve claimed as their own.  I brought them in for a break – water, strawberries, and pretzels.  As we sat at the table eating and trying to figure out what Ashy was saying, I got up for a second to do something and came back to an argument between Amby and Nat.  Amby declared “Natalie burped and didn’t say “excuse me.”  Nat argued “I did not. It was Ashy.  She made a big burp.”  Amby: “Unh uh, it was you, Natalie!” “No, it wasn’t!”  I’m finding this amusing and am trying not to laugh.  “You two are arguing about who burped.  Is that really worth fighting about?” I say.  Ashy is ignoring us.  Smart girl.  Amby says “She says I’m lying and I’m not!”  “Yes you are!” yells Natalie.  Nat has always had a remarkably loud voice and she is using it now.  Amby is tough, though.  She stares at Nat and says “I am not lying!  You burped and are blaming it on Ashy!”  I decide, unwisely, to try the humor route again.  Laughing, I say “Come on, you guys, think about it, this is funny, you are arguing about a burp.”  Natalie, often susceptible to humor, is half laughing and half crying.  “But she is saying I burped and I didn’t.”  Natalie picks up a handful of pretzels.  “Take it back or I will throw these at you, Amby!”  “But, you did burp, Natalie!” says Amby with tears in her eyes and a determined look on her face. Handfuls of pretzels are locked and loaded.  I realize, too late, this this isn’t about a burp, it’s about feelings.  Neither Nat or Amby is lying, they are both reporting what they believe is true.  But each thinks that the other is accusing her of lying.  It hurts.  I make an attempt at deescalating tensions.  “Look, I believe you” I say hoping they will each feel redeemed.  Unfortunately, the statement is heard by both as affirming the other’s lie and pretzels fly.  Voices are raised, the snack ends, and both girls get a time out.  Ashy continues to ignore us in favor of strawberries and pretzels.  Smart girl.

I’m picking up pretzels the girls didn’t get to in the halfhearted cleanup part of their time out sentence and I’m thinking about what happened.  We really don’t like it when someone doesn’t believe us.  We may not throw pretzels, but our reaction and subsequent behavior may have much greater consequences when we feel not believed.  Trust is at risk.

I think about a couple of projects I’m working with that have large challenges and confident project managers.  Both are facing large amounts of uncertainty that make it difficult to see the outcome of the projects at this time.  In my role as an objective observer, I have to report the uncertainties and barriers that have to be overcome to get to a successful outcome.  The project managers agree, but are concerned that an overly objective (read: pessimistic) report on the barriers will undermine the confidence they are trying to build.  So I think: what are we trying to build confidence in – a certain outcome, or in the ability to deal with uncertainty?

I guess that’s what it comes down to.  We have to build confidence in our ability to deal with whatever comes up. To be credibly confident, I think we have to:

  • Seek out and acknowledge the concerns of our team and stakeholders.  They have concerns that need to be understood and believed.
  • Consider, discuss, and get acceptance on what can go right in the face of the uncertainties.
  • Have a plan that leads us to areas of uncertainty allowing for early discovery and alternate paths.
  • Build the willingness within project sponsors and stakeholders to accept uncertainty and to be flexible in responding to what is discovered as the project unfolds.
  • Build the capacity within the project team to be able to respond to the possible paths to be taken that will lead to a successful project.  This may be new skills, planning processes, resources in reserve, or the ability to spend time and money from contingency.
  • Keep talking so that we can dispel concerns as they can be resolved, or bring out new ones so that they can be factored into the steps above.
  • Show confidence in the plan, process, and the team to respond to the uncertainties.

We can’t eliminate uncertainty, but we can build the capacity to deal with it through these steps.  I think that this is the essence of good risk management, too.  It creates awareness, acknowledges concerns, gives everyone the chance to express themselves and be believed, builds trust and collaboration in looking for ways to deal with uncertainty, recognizes capacity we may need but not have nailed down, and allows us to imagine positive outcomes and let this form our approach.

So, next time you feel like throwing food at someone challenging your confidence that you will successfully deliver your project, consider that they may just need to have their concerns heard and acknowledged.  They need to be believed.  If you disregard their concerns you will lose their trust.  They may not throw food, but the consequences could be worse.  Listen to and engage doubters in the solution.  Share the concerns uncovered and then deal with the uncertainty the concerns represent by building new capacity to deal with it.

This is especially true when watching your grandkids.  You have to accept that anything can happen, and be confident if you listen and show love and understanding that it will work out alright.  Having good cleaning supplies helps, too.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

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4 thoughts on “Who Burped?

  1. How timely. One project lead I work with daily is non-committal when I’m asking for a date to be confirmed for an outcome. This is due to his lack of confidence in his ability to work through the inevitable uncertainties. He wants to explore every possible scenario and understand every possible process first. Often this results in delays in communication to the stakeholders about the project. My role then? Acknowledge the uncertainties, trust in his ability to see what can go right, and set expectations “within project sponsors and stakeholders to accept uncertainty and to be flexible in responding to what is discovered as the project unfolds.” Thanks Glenn!

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