Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully

Integrity2Integrity is the result of a combination of virtues, including the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, supported by ‘soundness’ and completeness in what you do and say. You have to earn a reputation for integrity based on what you are, and more importantly what you are known for by the people you have to deliver the bad news to.

The reason integrity is so important in the world of project management, including PMOs, Portfolio and Program management is that most of the information and decisions we are involved in are based on a future outcome that cannot be proved at this point in time.

Any accountant can tell you a project actually cost $2million six months to a year after it finished; however, when the project estimator has to tell the Sponsor, his pet project will cost double the $1 million the Sponsor is hoping for there is no way of proving the estimates are correct. If the bad news is to be believed, the estimator has to be believed and the Sponsor’s willingness to believe is in part grounded in his impression of the estimator’s integrity.

Integrity should not be confused with ‘never making a mistake’ or the person’s passion for their work, or their producing evidence or calculations others disagree with – integrity is knowing the information produced by the person is the best they can deliver, is soundly based on sensible parameters and both the supporting information and any contra information is openly available (no secrets, and no overt biasing of the results).

In a perfect world, a person would be respected for their integrity and their opinion or information accepted on that basis, and used as the starting point for discussion, particularly if there is an alternative interpretation. In the ‘real world’ there is an unfortunate tendency to ‘shoot the messenger’ if someone in a powerful position dislikes the information.

Whilst being ‘shot at’ is never fun, watching how you are being attacked can provide very good insights into what the attacker really knows or thinks. Some of the current commentary around the climate change debate is a good example.

A couple of weeks ago the recently appointed Chair of the Australian Government’s Business Advisory Council launched an attack against the CSIRO, the weather bureau and the “myth” of anthropological climate change demonstrated in the IPCC reports. He did NOT offer any scientific evidence to support his assertion that all of the world scientific and meteorological bodies were incorrect, rather attacked their integrity and accountability on the grounds of ‘vested interest’.

Just for the record, the primary body looking at climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on which all of the 194 members of the United Nations have a right to be represented, and this body oversees and appoints the scientific panels which in turn engage with 1000s of other scientists world-wide. The work of the IPCC in turn has been reviewed by the Inter Academy Council, a multinational association of scientific academies, and found to be successful. I would suggest integrity, accountability and openness are clearly demonstrated. But this does not mean the science of climate change cannot be attacked, even if less than 2% of the peer reviewed scientific papers published in the last decade doubt the findings in the other 98% that man made greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change. Climate sceptics are happy to accept the odds of 49:1 against.

The ‘climate sceptics attacks are being mounted in exactly the same way the tobacco industry attacked the emerging body of scientific evidence in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, that smoking caused damage to people’s health. Some of these lines of attack (which generally mean the attack has no real data) are:

#1 Ask for specific proof. This sounds reasonable but is in fact impossible. You cannot prove a scientific theorem! All science can state is the theorem has not been challenged (yet) Gravity seems obvious and was explained by Newton, then Einstein, then Quantum Mechanics in quite different ways.

#2 Ask for an exact number. Our $2million project cannot be ‘proved’ to actually cost $2,000,0123 in 28 months time when it will be finished. All we can reasonably offer is an estimate, the assumptions it’s based on and a possible range of outcomes. Demanding to know ‘exactly’ what it will cost or exactly how long it will take is asking for the impossible and if a ‘number’ is provided, you can guarantee it will be wrong and that wrongness will be used to attack your credibility in the future

#3 Find one point of contradiction or one ‘change of opinion’ anywhere in the overall presentation and use this ‘one error’ to condemn the whole body of work. This is relatively simple if there is lots of complex information compiled from many sources and the people developing the materials are acting with integrity and making their processes open and transparent. Intelligent people when presented with new facts change their mind and adapt their thinking. It is highly counterproductive to ignore new data that may cause a change in the results of a complex calculation but watch the attackers claim the ‘science is wrong’ because opinions have changed by a few years and a few decimal points of a degree based on better modelling and more accurate data. Changing a forecast from 2.7 degrees of warming to 3 degrees, or a time period from 50 years to 30 does not alter the basic fact of global warming and the reality will be different again (but when you know exactly what the temperature rise was it is too late to stop it occurring). This is the classic project problem do you spend money now to alleviate a potential problem or wait until its too late and you know what the issue is for certain…….

#4 Attack the messenger. If you cannot attack the basic data, discredit the messenger. Claim vested interests, lack of morals, or anything that damages the messenger (in the corporate world fire the person or transfer them – we have a really good posting for you in the Aleutian Islands…) After all, the practice has been in vogue since the times of the Ancient Greeks.

Washington Post

Washington Post

#5 Use obvious facts out of context or in isolation. How can the world be ‘warming’ when the USA is freezing? The cold is obvious, the cause is not. The system that keeps the Arctic weather in the Arctic is the Jet Stream; the Jet Stream is powered by the thermal gradient between the tropics and the Arctic, the Arctic is warming faster than the tropics, reducing the gradient and therefore potentially making the Jet Stream less stable. For more on this see: http://science.time.com/2014/01/06/climate-change-driving-cold-weather/ (then apply #1, #2 and #3 above if you want to ignore the theorem). A counterpoint to the USA freeze is Australia’s record hot year in 2013, see: http://www.climatecouncil.org.au/2014/01/08/offthecharts/. However, neither the USA data not the Australian data alone proves anything used out of context or in isolation, what matters is the overall weight of evidence, not selected facts.

The good news is if your attacker is using any of these relatively cheap tactics, you know they have little real evidence to oppose you. If the attacker is of equal or lesser power to you, name their tactics and use the power of your integrity to counter their arguments, it takes time but there is nothing gained by descending to their level (except the loss of your integrity).

If the attacker has more power then you (the normal project / senior manger situation) more subtlety is required, but that requires a book to cover the options – fortunately there is one…. Treat yourself to a copy of Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management  it may not solve all of your problems but it will increase my royalties.

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7 responses to “Integrity is the key to delivering bad news successfully

  1. Pingback: The origins of Integrity | Mosaicproject's Blog

  2. The origins of ‘integrity’ can be traced back to the Roman Legions, see: https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/the-origins-of-integrity/

  3. Pingback: What is your personal brand? | Mosaicproject's Blog

  4. Pingback: Dealing with bad news | Stakeholder Management's Blog

  5. Pingback: Dealing with bad news | Mosaicproject's Blog

  6. Pingback: Stakeholders and Reputational Risk | Stakeholder Management's Blog

  7. Pingback: Stakeholders and Reputational Risk | Mosaicproject's Blog

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