Dealing with dissent
the story of Henry
by Bud Baker, Contributing Editor
HENRY IS A GOOD MAN. He’s uncommonly bright, and never fails to give 110 percent effort. He has a strong technical background, and is committed to the success of his project. Henry is an ethical man, with a well-developed sense of right and wrong.
A perfect team member, right? You’d like a dozen Henry-clones for your own project? Well, read on.
Henry’s team was tackling a construction project. The goal of the project was clear, but the means to that end were not. Henry’s approach offered substantial labor savings, but entailed high risk. The rest of the team advocated a labor-intensive, low-technology, lower-risk proposal.
The project manager heard both arguments and then sided with the majority: The project would go with the safe, low-risk technology, and thus avoid the risks associated with Henry’s recommendation.
Now the fun began. As the project developed, the usual real-world problems began to arise. And at each turn, Henry would try to resurrect his own rejected approach. “It’s not too late,” he’d remind his team, “for us to change to the right way.” Henry soon was using arguments that would make Machiavelli blush: “Well, finding a better way is just continuous improvement, isn’t it? Isn’t that something we all believe in?” He’d even conjure up the hallowed ghost of W. Edwards Deming: “I’m just trying to improve quality. You’re not against quality, are you?”
Not surprisingly, Henry’s maneuvering did not exactly endear him to his fellow team members. The first half of every staff meeting was spent rehashing Henry’s proposal, the same proposal rejected months before. Email among project members became testy, then some authors began to omit Henry from e-mails altogether. Add to all this the frequent absences of the project manager, whose extensive travel often left the team without a great deal of supervision.
Eventually, the project concluded. Old-fashioned hard work won out over intraproject politics. The client was satisfied, but the damage to project team relationships—especially affecting Henry—will be a long time healing.
Chances are that you’ve had a Henry on one of your teams—or you will someday. Keep in mind that Henry has skills that are vital to your project’s success, and that, for the most part, his motives are pure—he really believes he’s doing the right thing. You don’t want to stifle his creativity, but you also can’t stand the constant distraction, divisiveness, and damage to the morale of the project team.
So here’s the question: What does a project manager do with Henry?
Fortunately, project managers aren’t the first to face this dilemma. Military leaders have had all this worked out since before Julius Caesar ventured beyond the city gates of Rome. And generally, the stakes for the military leader are higher. Imagine Caesar facing the fearsome Gauls, while Henry tugs at his sleeve: “Gee, boss, do ya’ think this is such a great idea?”
The Royal Navy, in the time of Lord Nelson, handled their Henrys quite directly. They had 36 Articles of War, which were read to the ship’s company every Sunday. (As almost each article decreed that the guilty party be executed, one suspects that the crew paid more attention than is customary in a staff meeting today.) The articles forbade any criticism of the ship’s decision-making, under penalty of death.
These days, society takes a somewhat dimmer view of public executions of wayward team members, though most project managers have had days when the motivational tools of Lord Nelson looked pretty attractive. But out of life-and-death necessity, the modern military has developed a set of role expectations that can provide guidance to both project managers and team members.
First, military officers are taught that it is not only their right, but also their solemn duty to tactfully share their true opinions with their leaders, up to—and this is the key—the point at which the leader makes the final decision. Then, the subordinates’ duty shifts: They must stifle their personal views and support the leader’s choice, so long as personal conscience will allow.
THIS APPROACH ISN’T PERFECT, but it is vastly superior to the sort of intramural warfare that someone like Henry can trigger. Project cultures change but slowly; however, project managers can set the right tone for their effort by clarifying expectations about dissent: When is it expected? When is it encouraged? When is it unwelcome? Such clarification would have gone a long way toward channeling Henry’s behavior in a more productive direction. ■
Bud Baker, Ph.D., teaches at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, where he heads the MBA concentration in project management. He is a regular contributor to PM Network and Project Management Journal, and is a member of the PMJ Editorial Review Board. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 2000 PM Network