This is a guest article by Dana Brownlee from professionalismmatters.com.
One of the most common questions I get when speaking to groups is “How do you deliver a difficult message to/push back on senior leaders – particularly the difficult ones?” I certainly understand the popularity of the question because that’s a sticky situation for sure. While project managers and others often find themselves in opposition to the boss’ ideas, recommendations, or preferred course of action, telling the boss they have an “ugly baby” is a different story.
One of my favorite suggestions for this unenviable predicament is using risk analysis. Indeed, I think risk analysis can be the secret weapon of managing up! Why? Because risk analysis provides an opportunity for you to focus the discussion on the objective (often quantifiable) facts and away from the more emotional opinions.
In my book The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches I discuss the importance of using risk analysis to make your case for a particular point of view. Consider the following example…
You’re a project manager for an important upcoming company wide system migration effort. You’ve been stressed lately because the project sponsor Larry has been leaning on you to select a vendor (X) that you have grave concerns about. While Vendor X has great credentials on paper, you’ve heard from other colleagues in the industry who have experienced significant problems working with them. As a result, the team is heavily leaning towards another vendor who is slightly more expensive but seems much more reliable. Unfortunately, you’re in the hot seat to either support Larry’s choice or push back and lobby for a different course of action.
Approach A — Focused on opinions
“Hey, Larry. Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat with me about the vendor selection. I know that you prefer Vendor x because you liked their presentation and their pricing is better, but I really disagree and think we should reconsider. I heard from two other PMs this month that Vendor X delivered product late and that could be us if we go with them. I’m just not as comfortable with them as I’d like, and I don’t want to push the team in that direction. Could we try Vendor Y instead?”
Approach B — Focused on facts and consequences
“Hey, Larry. Thanks for taking a few minutes to chat with me about the vendor selection. I met with the team last week to conduct some risk analysis, and some of the risks we identified relate directly to vendor issues. Obviously, I wanted you to have all input before you make a final decision. In particular, these three items appeared in our list of top 10 potential risk events.
Vendor provides product more than ten days late
Vendor provides faulty product requiring reorders from another vendor
Vendor goes bankrupt and forces us to find another supplier last minute
We convened a broad cross section of SMEs to participate in the risk analysis session so we based these figures on the best information that we have. I’m somewhat concerned about these risks and just wanted to make sure you’re comfortable moving forward with Vendor X given some of the very real concerns. I’m happy to share additional specifics based on our risk analysis session discussion…..”
Not only is the risk analysis focused approach more effective, it’s an easier conversation to have and that’s HUGE! Speaking truth to power is never easy, and risk analysis can be a powerful tool in your toolbox to help you do just that. When it comes to key project decisions, it’s important to deemphasize personal opinions, emotions and preferences and focus instead on facts, options, and consequences and risk analysis helps the team do just that.
About the Author
President of Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana Brownlee is an Atlanta based keynote speaker and trainer. She provides tips and techniques to help individuals and teams enhance their workplace productivity. Connect with her on LinkedIn or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).