It’s a high-stakes meeting. You’re at the front of an executive boardroom, being grilled on a proposed business case that—if approved—will be the most significant undertaking you’ve been responsible for yet. You’ve done your homework, you did the work in building the business case and preparing your presentation, and now you have to defend it.
A couple of straightforward questions lead off. They are easy ones, clarifying details you have already considered and confirming what you’ve already presented. You answer clearly, confidently and concisely. You are feeling pretty good. You’ve got this. This is what preparation and confidence earns you.
Then it happens. There’s a thud to your left as your carefully prepared business case hits the table, followed by a snort of derision. It’s the VP of Operations, a powerful voice in the room and one you have to win over if you are going to be successful. She glares at you over her glasses. “These things are all the same. They’re made up numbers and fabricated benefits picked out of thin air to make the project look good. Projects like this never get done on time, they never deliver on their promises, and my people are left to pick up the pieces. Why should anyone around this table believe a thing you’ve just said for the last hour?”
Far fetched? Not even close. I’ve been there, I’ve been accused of worse, and the language employed wasn’t nearly as polite. This is the kind of make-or-break moment when you are going to carry the day, or fall flat on your face. There is no middle ground, there is no do-over and there is no phoning a friend. Everything you have worked for over the last four months rides on what you say in the next two minutes. So how do you respond?
Business school doesn’t really prepare you for moments like this. Nor does project management school. You might have learned the theoretical structure of a business case, and how to calculate net present value and the internal rate of return. You might even have mastered the art of story, and how to make a compelling case for change. But no one teaches you the appropriate response when the apex predator on your org chart comes after you with all guns blazing, questioning your competence and challenging your credibility. It would be altogether understandable if you crumbled. That would be an outcome your career in the organization would never recover from.
There are many different approaches that you can take here, and every single one of them is fraught with risk. There is no safe response and there is no one right way of handling the situation that is going to get you to a consistent outcome, let alone a positive one. Your success in this situation depends on how you read the room; that involves knowing who is there, sensing where they are at and assessing how they relate to the person asking the question—both in this particular moment and in general. It means evaluating what you know of the organization and its culture, and what is deemed acceptable behaviour. It also depends on how confident you are in your work, how competently you come across and how lucky you feel at this particular moment in time.
While those sound like a lot of variables to be in play, and the reality is that they just scratch the surface. That means that in figuring out how you respond, you need to weigh a number of different factors, make a judgement call on what to do next and hope that you make the right one. Moreover, you need to do all that in real time. There is no pause while you do research, analyze the situation, assess the trade-offs and decide how to execute. It’s just you, the Vice President and a rapt audience of other executives that all of a sudden found the conversation got much more interesting.
In similar situations, my responses have ranged from solicitous to confrontational. I’ve gone with, “You are absolutely right; business case numbers are usually fabrications with a hefty dose of positive spin. That’s why we’ve built this case to make sure it holds water and delivers value even in the worst-case scenario.” I’ve also used, “Thats a great question. It’s why I’ve spent the last four weeks working with your people to get real numbers, vet them and make sure I had their backing before we came here today.” I once got away with, “Even at twice the costs and half the benefits, you will still be better off moving forward than if you simply sit on your hands and do nothing.” While it requires knowing your numbers and a certain amount of chutzpah, I may have also invited, “Tell me which number in that document isn’t credible, and we can have a conversation about why I’m confident that it is.”
Every one of these responses is a calculated gamble. There are days you can get away with brutal honesty and candid feedback. There are also days where taking that approach will get you cut off at the knees. Sometimes the only responsible way of responding is going where the political winds are taking you, and other times you can deflect and occasionally you can fight the prevailing currents head-on. The big challenge is that all of those statements are true in the same room, with the same audience. You need to take a successful read on which day this one is, and which response is the one that you need to go with.
This is where simple models come in to play. They provide you with the tools to assess situations, evaluate options and make a call that is at least informed by something slightly more refined than an outright guess. Taking the situation that I’ve illustrated, there are any number of different factors that may be relevant. The confrontation may be about interpersonal dynamics. It could be about political influence and power. It might be a clash in personalities. It may be couched in organizational culture. It could also simply be that the executive is having a really bad day, and you were the first and easiest target to lash out at.
Taking a read on those options requires first knowing that all of those potential factors exist. It also means having available to you tools and perspectives to make sense of what is going on. Let’s say, for example that we sense that the problem is one of culture. Looking at the behaviour being exhibited and the concerns that are being expressed, there are a number of different ways that the situation could be interpreted.
In the context of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the outburst is classically aggressive-defensive in nature. With this model, the reaction comes from insecurity, and a fundamental orientation that says the best defence is a good offence. The behaviour is task-oriented, controlling and in part rooted in power and oppositional tendencies. In this situation, you’re going to want to hold your ground but not be confrontational. You will want to focus on task, not feelings. Reorienting the discussion to the work, the data and the research that has been done to validate it will help. Acknowledging the truth that business cases are usually fabrication, and emphasizing why this one is different, can potentially win you an ally.
While that’s one read, there are other possible interpretations. This might be a situation where the executive feels threatened (she has expressed concern about her people needing to clean up the mess and respond to the consequences once you are done which may be a genuine concern). The Competing Values Framework speaks of a culture that has an internal, flexible focus. It is a culture that feels like an extended family, with leaders being seen as parental figures. On a good day, it is a highly collaborative culture that places a strong emphasis on teamwork, loyalty and tradition. Where that culture is ignored, where collaboration and consultation has not occurred, where traditions are overlooked and values are dismissed, the response will be swift, confrontational and not pretty.
What you now have is two completely different interpretations of the exact same scenario. In one instance, you’ve got a task-oriented power-play where an appropriate response is based on facts, logic and confidence. In the other instance, you have a collaborative, team-oriented executive protecting her people. You’ve just seemingly ridden roughshod over their traditions and are attempting to do something to them, not with them. An appropriate response here looks a lot more facilitative, supportive and consensus-based.
Which do you go with? The answer is the response that is most appropriate given what you understand of the actual culture. That means you need to be looking for more clues and more information to back up what we know about the confrontation so far, and what we still don’t know about an appropriate response. You might look at the personality of the executive and the degree to which they are fact-based and controlling, or people-oriented, nurturing and protective. Body language, facial expression and tone of voice will tell you a lot. So will the reactions of others in the room. But a lot of what you need to know should have been grounded in cultural and personal understanding that you’ve built before you even walked in the room.
This is also where having a range of models available is essential. If you have one model that you tirelessly rely upon over and over, then what you doing is repetitively employing that model like a hammer, where everything and everyone you encounter looks a lot like a nail. There are days when percussive force may be useful, of course, and a hammer is exactly what you need. There are also going to be circumstances and situations where reality is a little more nuanced and you are going to require something defter and more subtle.
We live in a complex, messy and difficult world. Our success in navigating situations is based upon our ability to make sense of what is going on, understand factors at work and the stakes at play, and make appropriate judgement calls. You need to be alert to the world around you and what is happening in it. You need to be assessing what is going on, predicting how situations will play out, and evaluating after the fact the degree to which your read on the situation was accurate. You’re not doing this while you are in front of the room needing to make a call with potentially career-limiting consequences. You need to be doing this constantly as you work up to being in front of that room, so that when you actually get there you know what the right answer is.
The models that you are using here are many. They help you to build the business case. They support how you structure and present your data. They shape how you craft and relate your story. They define the level of detail you present to, and how much detail you emphasize and whether you need to explain your reasoning or focus more on the results. Models also define what your research looks like in getting ready for the presentation. They support reading the culture, and the personalities of the people that will be in the room. You need to have done your research and understand who they are, what they value and the answers you need to be armed with.
Maps are not the territory and models are not reality. They are both abstractions that simplify and amplify things you care about, so you can get to meaning, judgement and appropriate response. They are taking complex situations with many shades of grey, and making them a little bit more black-and-white. There will be nuance they don’t speak to, and there will be times where they are less relevant or less right. They will still get you much further ahead than flying blind and hoping for the best.