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Why bad news can be good news

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Work continues on the APM Assurance SIG People work stream where we are seeking to examine how behaviours can influence the effectiveness of the assurance process. In October Joanne Bradshaw, the Transformation Director for the Crown Commercial Service and Head of the Project Delivery Profession for the Cabinet Office wrote a blog reporting on the outputs from our workshop in October. She described how the meeting had explored what was 'good' or 'bad' behaviour in an assurance or audit context. Judging by the response we received, the idea of behaviour influencing the effectiveness of assurance clearly rang a few bells in the project management community. So much so that I think it’s worthwhile sharing some of the ideas that emerged from the feedback.  

Crossrail was in the media for all the wrong reasons when that blog was published. This context of surprise bad news prompted some reflection amongst you on how behavioural factors impact on accurate reporting. How can it be that delay and overspending fly under the radar of state-of-the-art project controls and sophisticated assurance regimes? Maybe they don’t, maybe the truth is suppressed.

You suggested certain behavioural characteristics that might hinder the emergence of truth:

  • Reporting may be frustrated because it is feared that unwelcome news will result in unpleasant consequences. If the project management believe they are going to get the sack if they report unflattering metrics, they may well try to suppress the reality until they have secured the best solution.
  • The client isn’t listening. While a client might deploy an assurance regime to scrutinise the efforts of his delivery agent, do they really want the bad news as well as the good?  It may be that the auditor receives the subliminal message that what is required is support for the premise that all is well (or will be in the end) rather than evidence that there are underling problems.
  • There may be some Heroic Delusion amongst project managers: “I know what the metrics say but the team can be inspired to superhuman efforts that will get us over the line in the end”. Perhaps this could be just as well called Egotistical Delusion: “if I say it will happen I know that it will”.

Either by themselves or in combination, these behavioural factors might combine to create a culture where ‘bad’ news or potential troubles are suppressed. In practical terms audit and assurance rely on data gathered from individuals; if those individuals have acquired a tendency to brush unwelcome facts under the carpet then the assurance process will struggle to uncover the truth. This can have more dire consequences than the ephemeral political embarrassment of the Crossrail delay. Think for instance of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster where engineers recognised the potential catastrophic technical flaw that might occur, but were unable to make themselves heard, and the possible danger was not adequately reported.

Our next workshop will focus on how assurance regimes can challenge the behaviours that conspire to frustrate the reporting of true facts. We are targeting this for the summer. To find out more visit our Assurance SIG page and follow to stay up to date.

Image: Kachka/Shutterstock.com

2 comments

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  1. Roy Millard
    Roy Millard 26 April 2019, 09:46 AM

    These days, there really is so little excuse for projects to go wrong. Information is legion, and it is generally human behaviour that leads to it not being used appropriately to avoid failure. Perhaps this is your second bullet, Charles; or it may be slightly different; but sometimes I think that bad news is ignored because the underlying factors behind the bad news can only be addressed when actual failure is imminent or happened. An extension of the: 'things have to get worse before they can get better' principle. I would argue that politics (with a small 'p') is usually/always behind that! The Major Projects Association are holding an Assurance Seminar on 12th June entitled: 'Assurance of Major Projects' (https://majorprojects.org/events/eventsdetails/527), which will have the question of "With all of this assurance around, why do some projects still go so badly wrong?". I suspect that behaviour will emerge as a major factor.

  2. Peter De Horsey
    Peter De Horsey 30 April 2019, 04:03 PM

    This is an interesting article. I wonder if in a project’s start-up stage the mechanics of assurance were reinforced as ‘a way to reduce risk’, behaviours would be positive towards its activities in the three lines of defence.