Let’s not dress it up: sometimes, people lie to get what they want. Whether intentional or not, ‘strategic misrepresentation’ can be found across the profession, but especially in project planning.
In the first two parts of this series (Project success rates and Reimagine your data) we looked at how we can overcome human factors, such as optimism bias, by improving project data and demanding an outside view of planning thanks to techniques such as reference class forecasting. But despite our best efforts, sometimes, people don’t like what the numbers tell them.
For part three of the series, APM Governance SIG member Greg Krawczyk ChPP shares five thoughts to help leaders root out strategic misrepresentation, manage their risk and, ultimately, make the best investment decisions.
1. Define and understand strategic misrepresentation
“If you’re new to the concept, I’ll start with a simple definition,” explains Krawczyk. “In a Medium article, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg defined strategic misrepresentation as ‘the tendency to deliberately and systematically distort or misstate information for strategic purposes’.
“The strategic misrepresentation of data presents itself in several different ways. But why do people misrepresent data? While we know there are many intrinsic and external motivators, the exact ‘why’ isn’t immediately obvious. That’s where I, and others, would like to see progression so that we can all take our understanding to the next level.”
2. Provide an independent view
How can we begin to stop strategic misrepresentation? Creating an independent view is a great place to start, Krawczyk explains.
“First, ensure your project manager isn’t in the same directorate as the sponsor. Separate the two, and you remove the political bias and the need for appeasement. Next, try holding any reference historical data in a restricted, read-only environment to avoid any sabotage activity. And to finish, bring in an independent resource to produce project estimates and deliver your data analysis capability.”
3. Transparency for all, at any time
People with nowhere to hide are less likely to do something wrong. Krawczyk explains how building transparency can deter those who wish to deceive the people around them.
“If we can’t eliminate the risk completely, we must focus on reducing the likelihood by increasing transparency. By making transparency central to projects, we can go a long way to raising the bar for those who would seek to operate in the shadows and obfuscate, hide or mislead. To do that, here are some tactics to consider.
“First, employ a data governance custodian/lead who owns the use of data and ensures project information is made available, transparent and used honestly. Then establish an audit committee, not directly connected to the project, that oversees the use of data. If you want to take it further, you can even invite public, media or shareholder scrutiny. And last, automate your investment application processes to ensure estimates are socialised, communicated and stored in the right way.”
4. Assure your organisation with a fall-back plan
The best organisations build in multiple layers of control and strategic misrepresentation should be no exception. Here’s how Krawczyk suggests you create a fall-back plan for when all else fails.
“When it comes to strategic misrepresentation, accountability and governance are the name of the game. All organisations need portfolio direction groups, sometimes called portfolio boards or investment committees, which act as critical business change governance nodes. To weed out misrepresentation, as a minimum, mandate that these forums use an ‘outside view’ of planning when making future decisions. To strengthen that further, it makes sense for project sponsors to actively evidence they are using data ethically or even link their performance and bonus to project actuals.”
5. Create individual confidence in data proficiency
As project professionals, we know that behavioural change takes dedicated time and effort. Alongside controls, governance and assurance, to overcome strategic misrepresentation organisations must enable new competencies within their teams. Krawczyk explains how to upskill our project teams effectively.
“There are several tactics to help everyone get more comfortable with data and the risks associated with strategic misrepresentation. While, like many things, it all starts with training and development, you can take it further in other ways.
“I’ve seen organisations develop an ethical use charter for project data, ensuring everyone signs up to do the right things at the right times. Dedicated data translators or data champions can also provide mentorship and guidance to interpret and utilise data effectively, providing a peer-to-peer support network for project professionals.
“And last, above all of that, organisational policies/standards that govern the quality and ethical use of project data help set the tone to ensure everyone is operating on a level playing field.”
While strategic misrepresentation isn’t a new concept, awareness and maturity in project management continue to grow. If you’re accountable for decision-making in your organisation, it pays to implement tactics that minimise your risk and ensure those with something to gain can’t get away with stretching the truth.
This article forms part of a series on data and effective governance in project management, led by the APM Governance Specific Interest Group (SIG). The SIG’s second event of 2023 is now live and will explore the concept of strategic misrepresentation in a roundtable format on 22 May at 6pm in London. Sign up here to be part of the debate.