• Chris Davies

Fear - How to lose a million

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Probably the best example I have experienced of an organisation's failure to create an effective culture was at a global Financial Services organisation about ten years ago.

At that time, I was running workshops and training courses and speaking to department heads and project and programme managers about the transition to agile. Much to my surprise, on one of these trips I was invited to attend a programme board meeting. I was aware of the programme and had been scheduled to speak to some of the people involved about how it was going and how I might be able to help.

At the meeting, the programme Director gave a powerful opening speech about the value of the programme to the organisation and how important it was. And then he asked for commentary on the current status of readiness. I should mention that this meeting was being held just 22 days before the first phase was due to go live, after over a year of planning, analysis, design, development and testing. And that the next day was the start of a 'change freeze' in the run up to implementation.

One project manager reported that they were nearly ready, but that some testing had yet to be completed. When challenged as to how much was outstanding, it was reluctantly revealed that almost 50% of planned tests had not been run.

The Director's face fell.

Another reported that all of their coding and testing had been completed but they were just working through some bugs. When asked how many were currently open and unresolved, the answer was well into triple-digits (I don't remember exactly).

The Director's face started to flush.

A third manager reported that their testing had worked well... in that it had revealed a fundamental design flaw that required them to re-think the entire application design.

The Director looked like he had been shot.

Although the project managers themselves were aware of these problems well before the day of this meeting, what was most telling is that they did not speak up about it until they had no choice.

All of them were more concerned about how they - and their professional abilities - would be perceived if they escalated a major issue, and had been feverishly toiling behind the scenes to try to limit the extent of the problem, or at least hide the worst effects.

When the people in an organisation are afraid to speak up, to be open and honest about mistakes and problems, leaders need to seriously question the culture of the organisation they lead.

In the example quoted above, the expected revenue - more than a million pounds (GBP) per annum were delayed by over a year. I later heard through the company grapevine that the whole program had been cancelled. Why? Because the original cost estimate of GBP 9 million had already been exceeded - twice! - and a new estimate of a further 19 million pounds was required to start again. The executive rightly decided the costs outweighed the benefits.

The atmosphere of fear and secrecy, of avoiding blame (as well as senior managers optimistic desire to prove themselves), had literally cost the company millions. Worse still, as far as I am aware, nothing was done to change the culture; instead the leadership team created even more stringent rules on future management, reporting and strict adherence to mandated process.

One project manager was asked to resign, another did so voluntarily. In both cases, the organisation failed them, not the other way round. The unspoken message to other project managers was "don't screw up or you're fired". Do you think that helped solve the problem?

What is the culture like in your organisation? Can you be completely open and honest with your peers and stakeholders? Or do you keep at least some of the whole truth to yourself for fear that to reveal it would have negative consequences?

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