Shades of Gray - A Good Leadership Skill | Systemation Blog
Defining Your Project Into a Box
July 22, 2009
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The Problem with Getting it “Right”

“If management would only let us do it the right way.”

“We can’t do it without the right tools.”

“If only we had the right people on this.”

Right. While working with executives and colleagues, Project Managers inevitably hear “right” phrases over-used. Certainly there are bad decisions and illegal actions. But it’s usually not a question of “rights” and “wrongs”. In business as in life, it’s typically not that black and white, but more shades of gray.

A mayor of a small town once illustrated the point with the following anecdote:

“If I went to a dinner party of ten people in my first year in office, two people wouldn’t like me. I don’t know why – they just wouldn’t. By the second year in office, four people wouldn’t like me. Third year, six people, and by the end of my term, eight out of ten people didn’t like me. It was discouraging until I finally figured it out. The general public has the luxury of seeing things in “black-and-white”. For example, if they have flooding in their area they can rightly be upset that we didn’t re-work the sewer system by them. Yet when you’re in leadership, you have to see the shades of gray.”

Effective Project Managers must learn to be productive despite ambiguity. Leaders spend increasing amounts of time outside the black-and-white margins, having to navigate the shades of gray. Yet many books and articles on project management and business analysis spout such phrases as “you must do the right things for the right reasons at the right time.” They are missing a crucial leadership skill.

Generally everyone gets what the author is trying to say. “Right” phrases make for great sound bites, but they usually oversimplify the issue.

It’s similar to the typical mantra about requirements gathering (another over-simplification, as if requirements come in little baskets waiting to be gathered up): “Ask the right questions of the right people at the right time.” What’s wrong with this? Sometimes the same question must be asked three different ways before one gets to the core of the requirement. Sometimes the answer changes over time. Sometimes there’s enough organizational churn that it’s not clear who the right people are.

So, Project Managers should acknowledge that shades of gray, as a leadership skill, can actually help them make responsible decisions. It forces them to identify assumptions, consider trade-offs, manage risks and expect change. It fuels the ability to make progress without having to solve every variable. And it keeps a clear focus on the baseline to make sure inevitable shifts are perceived and acted upon.