I first started out I worked for a branch of the intelligence services. Nothing terribly exciting, just a communications and IT specialist. Well okay, some of the time it was very exciting, but I can’t go into that.
Embedded in the culture was the concept of “need to know.” To minimize the risk that secrets would leak, you were only told things that were essential to perform your role. Nothing more, nothing less. For this to work, we all had to rely on someone at a more senior level making an accurate judgment about what we needed to know. Only they were allowed to see the bigger picture.
In fact, it was even a little risky asking questions lest suspicions were aroused. So generally people kept their heads down and did their job.
Why am I sharing this little snippet from my deep and distant past with you today?
It occurred to me the other day that a great many project managers are operating on a “need to know” basis, and a lot of the time, this is self-imposed.
Some of the reasons I’ve heard for this include:
- “I don’t have time to listen to things which do not make a direct contribution to my deliverables.”
- “They wouldn’t tell me even if I asked.”
- “My job is to manage the project not get involved in broader issues.”
- “I’m not interested in the politics.”
- “As if I haven’t got enough to do already.”
Without a doubt, working on a “need to know” basis, be it self-imposed or not, creates a huge number of problems.
Project managers in this situation also complain about not being involved in the bigger decisions, losing the resources they need to do the job, struggling to get their stakeholders aligned, fighting wavering support for their project, wondering whatever happened to their sponsor, and more besides.
The answers to all of these challenges and problems lie in the region beyond the immediate “need to know.” Dare I say it, in the region where you are trusting that someone else knows what they are doing, and what you need to know.
In reality, what I am challenging here are the boundaries of what you need to know. Extending these limits will help you to make progress on solving these issues.
So, if you are blighted by some or all of the problems above, isn’t it time you did something about it?
Here are five ways you can begin to step beyond your current “need to know.”
- Whenever you are asked to do something, at least attempt to dig a little bit deeper. What is driving their request? Why is it important? At the moment they are asking you, you have a little power over them, so use it to gather some more intelligence about the wider issues and challenges.
- Learn to sell the benefits of people giving you wider knowledge. In the majority of cases, when someone is asking for something, they will be (innocently perhaps) omitting things that will help you to deliver a better solution. Isn’t it beholden upon you as a professional to investigate fully so you can deliver the requisite quality?
- On the other hand, when you are asking for something from someone else, probe a little deeper into the challenges your request presents to the individual. Don’t just assert yourself or demand they comply. Maybe, if you knew their situation better, you could gain some economies. At the very least you’ll improve the relationship.
- Make it a team effort and send out your scouts. This doesn’t need to be additional work, just encouraging them to pick up clues about the wider agendas as they go about their work for you. Bringing this element into your regular meetings will help to get the whole team to broaden their horizons and start to expand the boundaries of “need to know.”
- Get curious and treat it as a a puzzle. If you engage in this work reluctantly, you are almost guaranteed to fail in acquiring the necessary intelligence. Pursuing these intriguing insights with a spirit of adventure is almost certainly guaranteed to lead to success.
All of these things need to be cultivated and become part of your modus operandi. When they are, you will quickly develop an intuitive grasp of the politics surrounding the work you love to do.
As an amusing way to end this short article, I’d like to share a little-known fact about the security services, at least as they were in my day.
If you wanted to get promoted, you had to demonstrate that you knew what was really going on, way beyond your “need to know.” Even they recognised that people needed to be able to see the bigger picture in order to successfully move up the ranks.
In effect, senior management were respecting the pursuit of secrets that people were not supposed to know, and more importantly, were not supposed to pursue!