Owning the Issue: A Profile in Courage

At the weekly executive operational review meeting, the atmosphere was tense. We were having issues with the order processing systems and the sales reps were unable to install and fulfill the orders for the new product line. A raspy voice from the row of people sitting behind the conference table said, “It’s all fouled up. We are working on the issue. I will have a an update later in the day.”

I was stunned. Who said that? It was the technology VP, Mike Callahan. Mike was honest, direct, and was not afraid to be accountable.

I learned an important lesson that day. When you, your organization, or your project team make a mistake—own it. Say, “I have a problem; this is what I am doing to fix it”, and apologize. When you acknowledge the problem and take accountability, it usually ends the blame-game, diffuses the tension, and creates the space to focus on the solution.

Years later, I made a big, embarrassing mistake. I presented a funding change request without inviting the executive sponsor to the change review meeting. We were reducing our budget-ask by 50% and I assumed that the request would be easily approved

Instead the review board members began asking detailed questions about the original business case–a technical accounting project. As the project manager, I understood the basics of the project but could not adequately defend it to a room of skeptical finance executives. After, what seemed like an eternity of being a mouse in a room of cats, they asked me to return to the next meeting, with the business sponsor. It was horrible.

Later that day, I received several emails from the executive sponsor, business lead, and technology lead. Rather than try to respond to the emails, I went directly to the sponsor’s office. I walked in and said, “I’m sorry. I did not expect problems with the change request.” He asked if we would have this problem again, I responded, “No, sir.” I successfully completed that project and went on to lead several more projects for that executive.

As a manager, I create a no-shame environment where transparency is expected.

I am now the leader of a large project management organization. I have tried to build a culture of accountability and transparency. I have set expectations with my team:

  • Own your mistakes. Accept responsibility for what happens, be brave, and apologize.
  • Be transparent. I do not expect perfection; but I do expect honesty and transparency.
  • Ask for help. When you ask for help, you expand the universe of people who can help solve the problem.

As a manager, I create a culture where raising issues or admitting our mistakes is accepted and encouraged. I do not shame or punish when issues are raised. I offer assistance without micro managing or assuming ownership of the problem. By creating an open, transparent, and trusting culture we manage and address problems constructively and un-emotionally.

While I am not as audacious and bold as Mike, I have learned that being open, honest, and transparent is the right thing to do. Thank you, Mike.


© 2014, Project Management Essentials, LLC