Delay Is Almost Always The Worst Alternative

Why is it difficult to act responsibly? Actually, it is not difficult at all; people just think it is. The reason is that most of us are afraid that we won't be listened to, or we are unsure of our responsibilities. When we are unsure, we hang back to see whether someone else will handle the problem. usually, however, no one else has clear responsibility either, so the problem just festers. In Judy's case, Congress had set the date and her manager had agreed to the project. So he was responsible and not Judy. Although it sounds rational to put blame where it belongs, doing so invariably leads to failed projects. Acting responsibly can seem risky. In fact, it is the least risky alternative.

When a project appears to the engineers to be in trouble, it almost certainly is. When people keep quiet and hope someone else will recognize the problem, the issue gets progressively harder to address. Every day that you wait to act is a day that you can't use to solve the problem. Delay also exposes you to the question of why you delayed telling management. If you can say that you just found out about the problem, that is reasonable. But if you have to admit that you have known for months but lacked the nerve to tell someone, you are more likely to be criticized. So delay is almost always the worst alternative.

Speaking up involves exposing yourself to criticism. Responsible actions often involve changing the status quo, and this never looks easy, particularly if you are an engineer and the status quo was established by a senior manager. But when the facts are known and senior managers understand the facts, they are usually reasonable.

of course, what makes stating the facts risky is the chance that the senior manager will be unreasonable. Because engineers rarely know these managers and because these engineers will rarely be blamed for not personally taking action, it seems much safer to wait and see whether someone else will solve the problem. Although that is always an option, it is irresponsible.

Perhaps the best example of how facts can change an executive's point of view was cited by Covey in his wonderful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.3

Two battleships assigned to the training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. I was serving on the lead battleship and was on watch on the bridge as night fell. The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye on all activities.

Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow."

"Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain called out.

Lookout replied, "Steady, captain," which meant we were on a dangerous collision course with that ship.

The captain then called to the signalman, "Signal that ship: We are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees."

Back came a signal, "Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees."

The captain said, "Send, I'm a captain, change course 20 degrees."

3. Stephen R. Covey. 1990. The 7Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York: Simon & Schuster, 33.

"I'm a seaman second class," came the reply. "You had better change course 20 degrees."

By that time, the captain was furious. He spat out, "Send, I'm a battleship. Change course 20 degrees."

Back came a flashing light, "I'm a lighthouse."

We changed course.

So if you know the facts and can make these facts clear to management, think of yourself as a lighthouse. Then all these executive battleships will have to pay attention.

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