Project Reality Check #9: Tyranny of the “Truth”

by Gary Monti on February 15, 2011

Tyrannical behavior can spring from the best of intentions. It is one person seeing the “truth” and insisting others follow. If you read the previous blog you’ll know why “truth” is in quotation marks. It can refer to our perception of reality, expectations, and insistence to conformance to that view rather than addressing reality itself. In projects this can lead to disastrous behaviors when the person or organization giving the orders believes they are in the know and doing what is best. This surfaces repeatedly throughout history.

The Devastating 88’s

In World War II one of the most effective weapons was the German 88 millimeter cannon. It was initially developed as an antiaircraft artillery piece and proved to be extremely effective. Testing it, the army noticed it could penetrate any British armor and quickly adopted it for field use, building a field carriage that made it quite transportable. Its performance was, in a word, devastating. Four 88’s could decimate a much larger unit of British armor.

So what does military history have to do with business? Look at it this way. Imagine how it would feel if you could invest $500,000 in a project, have a smaller team and take market share from a much larger competitor who had invested $5,000,000 and just isn’t as quick responding to customers. If that were true then your deliverable would be a force multiplier. A force multiplier amplifies the output of an individual. The 88 was a force multiplier!

Roll back to the previous blog regarding fantasy and reality. The German military management saw what the 88 could do, modified their view of the “truth,” and let subordinates implement accordingly. The “truth,” though, can cut the other way.

The Tyranny of the “Truth”

Ironically, the British could have matched and neutralized the 88 with an artillery piece of their own, a 3.5 inch antiaircraft cannon. This was very slow to occur and did only on an ad hoc basis. Consequently, the tyranny of “truth” caused many lives to be lost. The back story to this reveals a lot.

Similar to the 88, the 3.5 was devastating. It could penetrate any armor the Germans had. So, why aren’t there stories of 3.5’s wiping out German armored units? The British military command was notorious for being very hide-bound. Rank and privilege went hand-in-hand. In other words, an officer must be intrinsically superior to an enlisted man. Also, a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place was the order of the day and that place was determined by military command, those superior people. Consequently, the “truth” about the 3.5 was, “It was designed for antiaircraft use and it was preposterous to think something designed to attack an aircraft could have anything to do with an armored vehicle.” The “truth” was infantry would use a 2-pounder cannon, the shells of which pretty much bounced off German vehicles. The important thing was the 2-pounder was designed for anti-tank use so that was that.

The “Solution”

Eventually, British troops were allowed to use the 3.5 as an antitank weapon in North Africa and had some success. There was a problem, though. Because of the bureaucratic restrictions the gun plus carriage was twice the weight of the 88 and lacked the nimbleness. Keep that image in mind and switch back to business.

Think of General Motors before (3.5) and after (88) bankruptcy. The “solutions” offered before bankruptcy were predicated on keeping the status quo and associated reward system intact.  That was the “truth.” The path to success at GM has been built on dropping the old belief/reward systems and working to mold GM to be in line with current market demands and pricing. It has been painful, to say the least. It also has been rewarding and looks to offer a chance for GM to once again thrive.

In closing, I’d like to pose a question, “If you were to present this story to your organization and project team… would they say you are an 88 or 3.5 and what would they want to do about it?”

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