Frequent readers of my blog will know how much I respect Scott Adams’s unique insights into the dysfunctions of corporate life. Let’s analyze the case study provided in today’s comic strip!
The pointy-haired boss who serves as a constant reminder of the validity of the Peter Principle expresses surprise about the bumpiness of their white-water team-building project.
A modicum of effective risk management might have caused him to utilize an avoid risk response by picking a slightly less adventurous event although with that group it is hard to envision what would be a perfectly safe one!
If there was still a desire to take the group white-water rafting, then perhaps investing in life vests for those who couldn’t swim would have been a reasonable risk mitigation response, although as the boss indicates in the last frame of the strip, there would likely have been a corresponding higher cost for implementing this response.
While the boss uses ignorance as his rationale, there is no excuse for not practicing risk management commensurate to the level of complexity and uncertainty of a given project.
Avoiding assumptions analysis
An assumption is stated in the sixth frame by the pointy-haired boss about Ted’s ability to swim. That assumption germinated a key risk – if Ted was NOT able to swim and fell in, he’d require more assistance than a competent swimmer and hence the team’s decision to not look for him was unwise. Had the boss conducted a quick elicitation of assumptions and had the team challenge those assumptions which could have been proactively validated, Ted might not be missing.
Project managers have a responsibility to ask their team members and key stakeholders what assumptions are being made as plans are defined, incorporate those assumptions as inputs into risk identification, and schedule reminders to validate those assumptions as the project progresses.
The glamour of groupthink
The fourth and seventh frames of the comic strip confirm that the team members are complicit in the project’s failure. While team consensus was achieved with the decision to not look for Ted after he fell in and then again later by pretending that he never participated, it is quite likely that Asok or Dilbert, who are two characters who usually act as the conscience of the narrative, would not have agreed with these decisions but were likely concerned about rocking the boat (or white-water raft!).
While project managers are expected to recognize the symptoms of groupthink so that it can be nipped in the bud, a more effective countermeasure is to encourage healthy conflict as one the team’s ground rules so that individual team members don’t shy away from speaking up if they believe the wrong decision is being made.
Oscar Wilde – Life imitates art far more than art imitates life