The Power of Conversations

There is yet another good article in the Sloan Management Review this summer, this one focusing on an important problem in project management: silence. I think it goes beyond project management, but the article points to five crucial conversations that simply don’t happen in a large number of projects that fail, go way over budget, etc. The conversations themselves are not surprising:

  • Are we really basing our plans on facts?
  • Is leadership really behind the project?
  • Are we skipping important organizational processes?
  • Are we being honest about progress or risks?
  • Are team members pulling their weight?

Avoiding these tough conversations, they argue, is what causes so many projects to fail. The solutions they suggest are interesting, including a simple one that says if you want these conversations to happen, make it easier.

That is, break up the chain of command a little. The team at Sprint that they worked with did two interesting things. First, they identified “influential and respected” people at all levels of the organization and then invited them to special briefings with senior management (leaving out the bosses of these people). These “skip level” briefings turned out to be critical in providing more accurate information to those at the top. But it also built trust elsewhere.

In addition, as these opinion leaders returned to their functions and reported informally to peers about their positive experiences with raising tough issues with upper management, trust blossomed. The investment of time and attention in opinion leaders’ experiences was leveraged over and over as those they shared their experiences with took greater risks to raise crucial issues they previously would not have raised.

I think this is a great example of a simple experiment—change the rules a little bit within the organizational structure or process and see if it generates a return. There are probably many ways the existing culture or structure gets in the way of communication, so go ahead and try things differently.

But my attention went to a piece that the authors didn’t talk about much: the “influential and respected” people. If they are so influential and respected and “have their fingers on the pulse of the systems and organizations” as the authors contend, then why did it take so long to get them more involved? I think this gets to my point about the difference between authority and leadership. Leadership is a capacity that exists throughout the organization, but because our attention is more on authority, we let it languish.