Home » Change Management » Using Hard Facts To Reduce Honesty Buffers

Reducing the project management tool “honesty buffers” is a way to rapidly improve the organization.  Much of what I’ve talked about assumed that we really did know what was going on, and it was more a matter of just delivering the facts than figuring out what the facts are.  When we don’t yet know the facts, but must report or update senior management, hard facts are often readily available such that we can supply something more concrete than “we don’t know yet.”

In Nine Ways To Eliminate Project Honesty Buffers if we didn’t know what was going on, what the status was or when we would be finished, we would just say that.  The challenge with this psychology is that folks willing to say “we’ll have it fixed by Monday” are often more highly sought as leaders and managers than folks who say “we don’t know yet.”  This kind of environment may unintentionally encourage managers to be aggressively optimistic.

In several key areas of project management we will often find that we have hard facts readily available that can supply solid answers.   These hard facts  provide very good answers in situations where it looks like we otherwise don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions.

Hard Facts Of Project Past Performance SchedulesThe Hard Facts of Schedules

Having historic data that shows how long the typical project takes enables us to always have a good “average” schedule estimate.  If a project is going badly off schedule,  for example, I’ve often found that comparing the approved schedule to recent historic schedules readily exposed an overly aggressive schedule.  The “I don’t know” then becomes “it has taken us X months in the past, so that suggests we have a least Y months left.” The key here is be able to suggest a schedule that can actually be attained, because we’ve done it in the past, rather than a schedule that only feels right and appears to fit what is wanted at the time.  This provides a hard facts based estimate until we are able to produce a final estimate (for more detail on this approach, see Get The Project Management Tool Schedule Right).

The Hard Facts of Defects

How often when a problem is reported is the first question “when will it be fixed?”  If it will be fixed by tomorrow the typical senior manager probably doesn’t care about further details.  On the other hand, if we don’t know anything about the problem yet how do we answer such a question?  Brutal honesty suggests “we don’t know yet, we need to understand the problem.”  However, if you again know that your typical defect (such as in a software development environment) takes an average of seven  days to repair, then you do know that the averages are in your favor if you say “we expect a fix by next week.”   Here your “brutal honesty” is using the hard facts of the average.  If you are asked “what is the worst case” and again you don’t know anything yet because you just heard about the problem two minutes ago, what can you do?  You can say “I  don’t know” or “We have a meeting on that at 4,” but I’ll suggest you can often have a pretty good answer.  If you know your average to fix a problem is seven days and the standard deviation to fix a problem is three days, then you know that you are fixing 95% of all problems in 7 + 2 x 3 = 13 days.   You can answer that we fix the vast majority of problems in under two weeks.   Your need for an “honesty buffer” is minimized by knowing how you’ve performed in the past.   Using averages is a good first estimate and it also turns out it can be a very good final estimate (see Knowing Your Project Management Tool Average Is Powerful).

Hard Facts of Project ManagementThe Hard Facts of Management

Collecting and using the “hard facts” on how the organization performs is a straight forward way of minimizing the need for “honesty buffers.”  Keep in mind that even using objective data is fraught with peril.  Even with good data, I’ve found folks challenging the hard facts with “why can’t we do it faster?” or “this one looks easy, it shouldn’t take that long!” or finally “let’s do this one 20% faster!”  These kind of folks, whether they are senior managers or otherwise influential, are often the reason some managers feel pressured into making overly optimistic statements.   In this kind of situation we will find ourselves incrementally helping these challenging managers to see that this kind of “damn the facts, full speed ahead” management can be readily replaced by “know the facts, full speed ahead” management  (see Eliminate Your Project Management Honesty Buffers,  Seven Ways To Make That Project Silver Bullet Work, If Nothing Else – Honesty Is Just More Efficient,  One Great Way Of Using Your Project Management Tool Staff Hours for successful approaches).

Reducing “honesty buffers” is doable when using hard facts and having some knowledge on how to help folks make the transition to objective data oriented management.   Removing the “honesty buffers” provides a great boost to the ability of any organization to rapidly learn, change and improve.

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3 thoughts on “Using Hard Facts To Reduce Honesty Buffers

  1. For other examples on how folks are “encouraged” in such a way as to resort to “honesty buffers” see also “The Business of Software Contagious Craziness, Spreading Sanity” Communications Of The ACM, October 2009.

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