Eight simple questions to get the facts preventing execution success

Cutting through the program management language barrier

David Hilliard is CEO of Mentor Europe. He’s been at the heart of business transformation execution for nearly 40 years.

In the fourth extract from David’s Insight Guide, “Reflections on a lifetime in strategy execution”, he points out that most CEOs only take direct action when the wheels come off the program. That requires drilling down to the facts causing the problems, cutting through the vague, meaningless, defensive language often used by those working and reporting on program status. Read how this can easily be avoided using eight questions preventing execution success.

If you’d like to read the entire Insight Guide, it’s available here.

“The situation is tight but achievable.” – weasel words for “we’ve already blown it”

Leadership teams are often too distant from the nuts and bolts of a program to know what’s happening – until the wheels come off.

This is the point where the CEO asks for a drill-down on the plan to flush out all of the problems and set recovery actions in motion. An accurate project risk assessment needs to be made.

This exercise is taken seriously. No one wants to look bad.

Yet, even if people feel there are problems, there’s a natural tendency to suppress bad news, be relentlessly optimistic and ignore the elephant in the room.

There’s always a healthy willingness to bend the truth – to view problems through terribly dark parochial glasses and tell the CEO what they want to hear. This is often a cultural factor at play in many organisations. Our video explains this in-depth.

We call this “optimism bias”. And it’s typically wrapped up in language that distorts the actual picture. A “collusion of optimists” presents the revised plan at the following CEO review. A few new problems may be exposed, but teams always dress these up in that well-known cliché ……

“The situation is tight but achievable.” These are weasel words for “we’ve already blown it.”

Top management constantly filters out the “tight but” half of the sentence. Everyone focuses on the word “achievable.” That’s all they hear.

In truth, the “achievable” label is not an expression of confidence – or anything like it. Instead, it’s a meaningless linguistic manipulation, loaded with vagueness and wishful thinking.

Program execution is littered with imprecise language, regularly used to mask a lack of knowledge

Those at the sharp end of executing a spluttering program are frequently on the defensive, trying to sound convincing. They want to look like they’re in control but often shift the blame to others for any shortcomings.

In fairness, the sheer complexity of strategic implementation programs – and the weight of responsibility on individuals – can deter those involved from being frank and open with the facts.

So rather than say “I don’t know”, “that was down to me,” or “I’ll find out”, you hear empty phrases designed to obscure the actual facts:

“I was led to believe….”

“I was under the impression that….”

“My understanding is that….”

“To the best of my knowledge….”

“My recollection of that is ….”

“I would have thought….”

“That ought to be possible….”

These examples are common but also highly misleading. They reveal the presenter is diverting attention from the core issue and is speculating with “hoped-for” facts to explain an out-of-line situation.

In other words, they are unfactual facts. Worthless.

And then there are the classic expressions that usually mean the opposite of what the words might suggest. Here are just a few:

I hear what you say – I disagree completely.

With all due respect – I think you are wrong and do not value your opinion.

Perhaps you could give that more thought – This is a bad idea. Could you not do it?

That’s an original idea – your idea is stupid.

I’m sure it’s my fault – it’s your fault.

A few issues will need to be addressed – the whole scheme needs changing.

Eight simple questions to root out the facts

CEOs and senior management need to cut through the bluster and the claptrap and dig deep to get to the facts.

Simple, direct questions can be used that leave no wiggle room. They expose what those delivering the program actually know and understand:

  1. What is being delivered?
  2. Who, specifically, will do it?
  3. What is causing the delay/problem?
  4. Will the situation continue?
  5. What has to happen to stop it?
  6. When will the corrections be made?
  7. Who is responsible for each element, specifically?
  8. How will you know when it’s complete?

Now, I want to make an important point here. 

It is vital people feel they are not being interrogated and feel comfortable taking personal responsibility for their actions. 

Effective as this model is, it’s easy to bombard people in a way that makes them pull the shutters down.

Pre-framing the questions with “softeners” – will help build rapport, remove harshness and encourage open responses. 

For example, instead of asking, “What’s happened, that’s causing the delay/problem?” you could say, “That sounds like a difficult situation. Tell me how it all happened.”

Acting sooner rather than later – don’t delay

I’ve carried out more program reviews in the last 40 years than I care to remember. I’d like to say senior executives swing into action using these simple questioning techniques when a program goes off the rails.

Yet, they tend not to ask these direct questions. Questions that would quickly reveal the emperor has no clothes.

Instead, many executives tend to be reassured by comforting porridge-like answers that don’t reveal much – and they rarely challenge the underlying logic of the “recovery” story. 

Mostly, they hear what they want to hear – and approve revised plans based on flawed assumptions that can introduce even more program risk. These management control gaps do buy the program management team some time – but the tranquillity seldom lasts for very long.

Depending on the program’s size, this downward spiral pattern repeats itself at intervals, typically every 3-6 months. 

In some cases, it may be longer before a sense of crisis compels the CEO to concede the company must take exceptional measures to salvage the program.

The parallels between all the programs I have reviewed were truly remarkable.  The same patterns keep repeating and show that the company’s execution system has failed. Big programs will always depart from the rails too, unless companies take the time to understand what has gone wrong and fix it.

A cautionary tale.  It’s never one thing that triggers a failure. It’s always a combination of factors – mostly behavioural – that cause a program to fall like a row of dominoes.

This article is a part of an Insight Guide by David called “Reflections on a Lifetime in Strategy Execution.” To find out how to steer clear of expensive, time-consuming – and in some cases, career-damaging program “rescues”, download the entire document now.

Or feel free to feedback any comments you may have directly to David via dhilliard@mentoreurope.com