Should I contribute to this report?
April 22, 2012 8:10 PM   Subscribe

I worked on a professional project which went badly wrong. Before the project imploded, I tried to draw attention to the problems and suggest solutions, but was overruled. Now, months later, the project leader wants me to contribute to a report. If you've been in a similar situation, how did you approach it? What pitfalls should I be wary of?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have found that the truth is always the best way to go. State simple facts, do not accuse.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:24 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've done this.

Whatever you do, do not expect your objections to be validated in post. Keep your assessment completely factual. Don't expect anything to change, either.
posted by fake at 8:33 PM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is project management best practice, so it is not unusual at all. Be honest, offer your 20/20 hindsight and point to where you feel it went of the rails as rationally as you can.
posted by dobie at 8:34 PM on April 22, 2012

do not accuse

Yes, it shouldn't be an exercise in finger pointing, or "us vs them" thinking.

If ever there's a time to use the passive voice, this is it, eg "the environments were not ready" as opposed to "Joe didn't set up the environments in time".
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:38 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

We learn way more from failure than from success ... assuming we face it and don't hide from the facts, and our complicity.

Also, what everyone else has said so far.
posted by philip-random at 8:39 PM on April 22, 2012

When a train goes off the rails, it's the tracks and not the people who laid them, the engine and not the engineer, and so on. Don't cover anything up, but don't try to peg the blame on individuals, either. You just talk about the nuts and bolts and let management play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Always keep in mind that the damage is already done, so this isn't going to get reanimate the project.
posted by griphus at 8:47 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honesty, but get someone completely disconnected from your project/company/field to review what you write before you submit it. (You really don't want to come off sounding axe-grindy, etc., when trying to present the facts.)
posted by introp at 8:54 PM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
The project manager wants to get my contributions via a face to face meeting. I am not confident that my concerns will be accurately reflected in the report. How is such a report typically structured? Would it be inappropriate for me to offer a written contribution instead, or as well?

posted by taz at 9:45 PM on April 22, 2012

"Would it be inappropriate for me to offer a written contribution instead, or as well?"

If all your project manager wants is a verbal report, submitting something in writing, especially if it would be embarrassing to him might be undiplomatic.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:07 PM on April 22, 2012

I would definitely have something in writing, with everything you would like to say in there (making sure to also include the things that went well, so it is not a completely negative report). Offer it when you go to talk to the project manager, saying something along the lines of "I'm glad that we can talk about this, but I wanted to make sure that I didn't forget anything, so I put it down in writing for you". You can give it to them, and in the end if your input isn't used, at least you know you provided all of the information you had. Also, if someone later has questions or complaints about the final report and wants to follow up, you can always tell them that you put your concerns in writing and gave them to the project manager, which will help to keep fingers from being pointed at you.
posted by markblasco at 10:29 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would just look at this as one of the many tasks of dubious utility that you are expected to complete in the course of your job. By pulling you in for a face-to-face meeting rather than asking for you to submit a written report (so that you will feel compelled to be extra-diplomatic, and so that he/she can pick and choose how to interpret your report and what to include in any further reporting to higher-ups) your former project manager is essentially signaling that they do not want to hear what you really think but rather that they simply want to be able to tick off a "consulted reports as to causes of trainwreck" box in their own debriefing to their supervisors. Play along, say what you can without getting yourself in trouble, and move on with your life. Don't expect the meeting to have any positive effect, but don't be surprised if something you say in it comes back to haunt you later. Work to minimize the latter, don't try to achieve the former because it's probably not possible here.

Basically, look at it like this: you have nothing to gain by being confrontational, and much to lose. However, simply declining to have the meeting counts as confrontational and may reflect negatively on you. Therefore, your only course of action is to go to the meeting but behave innocuously. Hold your nose and do it, and going forward just try to avoid the kinds of situations that caused the wreck so that you don't have to go through this again in the future.
posted by Scientist at 11:15 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would (and have) participate in this kind of exercise as follows - have the in-person meeting and bring a page of bullet points around the topics you want to make sure you cover. Use this page as your jumping off point for conversation, and then follow up afterwards with an email containing your bullets and a brief summary on each point. The email thing can scratch your "I want to get it in writing" itch, and you can present it as "I just wanted to make sure you had my notes in case you need to refer back to anything or have questions - let me know if you need anything else".
posted by ersatzkat at 4:37 AM on April 23, 2012

I've always found research paper format to be useful in these situations.

An example agenda:

Introduction/review – What the project goals were, who was involved, etc.
Methods – What actions were undertaking
Results – Objective analysis of results/outcomes

Discussion/Interpretation – What those results mean.

That provides you the ability to use the royal "we" in the first part, mainly describing what went wrong in plain, objective thoughts without assigning blame.

In the second part, you can then shift to the "I" in terms of "I learned...", "Next time, I think we would get better results if...", and "I think we had the right team, we did not have enough budget." or "I think we had an adequate budget but we did not have the right team."

Normally in these situations, they're not looking for someone to burn, rather whoever you're talking to is going to have to explain it to someone else. And as it goes up the chain, it becomes less important "who" was responsible for it -- they can sort that out -- the real issue is "what failed and how can we prevent it from happening again."

Thus, attribute the failures to "we" and the learnings to "you" and you should be fine.

All other points are valid. Go in with objective bullet points they can take away. Don't put your opinion on that sheet.
posted by nickrussell at 5:52 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Research paper format sounds good, or simply a double list. "What we did right" and "what we did wrong". Leave out names unless asked for them.
posted by gjc at 6:22 AM on April 23, 2012

I think your follow-up is significant. I believe that in asking for your submission face-to-face rather than in written format, it is highly likely that your manager does want to be able to manipulate the outcone of any final repirt. Your manager is under pressure to submit something, probably to his line managers/directors etc., about what went wrong.

No matter what you say to him/her face to face, the submission they make will be what they want to write. IF it was noted that you made attempts to point out it will look bad that you were not consulted but face-to-face they can say whatever they want.

by all means go into the meeting with objective bullet points but then ask your manager what they want you to do with that piece of paper. In an ideal world the company would learn from the mistakes but since you report to the manager of the train wreck do you want to be right and vindicated or do you want to stay employed?
posted by Wilder at 11:18 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Some text edited for privacy as per OP.]
posted by taz (staff) at 3:19 AM on April 28, 2012

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