The Challenge of Being Challenged

May 3, 2013

When I was working in a software development team, I created a tax calculation system which allowed taxes to be calculated wherever the buyer and suppliers were located. It worked in local sales and in international sales, calculated whatever taxes were required and produced correct data for reporting in all the countries involved. My colleagues were surprised when I presented them the proposal and asked them to shoot it down in every way possible. They started off – as is often the case – by being polite and say nice, friendly, comforting words. But, that was not what I wanted: I told them I wanted them to destroy my ideas as much as possible.

It seemed logical and practical to me that I would want any possible failure or issue with my concepts and ideas to be identified and corrected before more time and money was invested developing of the product.

Somehow, this is not the general consensus. It would appear that most people, when they ask for feedback are only looking for support, affirmation and encouragement rather than useful feedback. This is the reason that in most engineering organizations, the incredibly useful practice of peer reviews is not being implemented systematically. It is well known (measured and demonstrated) that structured peer reviews are the cheapest and most efficient way to significantly improve the quality of a product or service, yet, when the time comes, it appears that most engineers would rather not have their colleagues find fault with their work.

I recently posted an item on estimating (“slow-stimating“) in which I mention that I would expect any estimate to be systematically challenged by management, sales, engineering and other concerned parties. This should not be done in the traditional way of trying to reduce the cost and the time by cutting random elements from budget or schedule under the (incorrect) idea that the customer will be more happy if we are over optimistic. On the contrary, I urge you to challenge the estimates by trying to find what was forgotten, what was too optimistic, what risks were forgotten, what resource availability was not verified… this will allow you to get a better idea of the real cost of the work to be done; understanding the cost will allow you to create a strategy in which the best usage can be made of available resources. The goal is to understand your risks before you get into the contract rather and guarantee a level of completeness which avoid over-run, failure and penalties as much as possible.

The same is true of management decisions. Surrounding yourself with “yes-men” who will agree and encourage and support whatever decision you make will only allow you to fail more spectacularly. When you fail, all your faithful supporters will remind you that this was your decision and you are the guilty party; they are ready to agree with your successor. Having a team in which everyone agrees with your bad ideas is not proof that you are a leader: they are not following you into battle, they are letting you go into the mine-field first; you are not the leader, you are the sacrifice.

Being challenged is not fun. Putting out your ideas and have someone come and tell you that this is wrong, will never work, is a stupid idea is not something we enjoy. But, if you believe in that the success of your organization, of your company, of your future career is more important than your short-term pride issues, you will look forward to being challenged constructively. The systematic challenge should be built into every decision process, every investment, every development.

You have heard the old statement that only people who do not do anything are never wrong; I will add that if you don’t want to be challenged, you should not do anything – because whatever you do, whatever you say, can be improved, misunderstood, done in a different way. You will be challenged, your ideas will be proved wrong. Do you want to be challenged before you make a fool of yourself or after? Do you want to be challenged in a constructive way, to your face, so that you can improve, or would you rather let people criticize you behind your back?


One comment

  1. Peter,

    I’m very sorry, but I wont challenge you on this comment. It is very much in line with my understanding of how work should be performed. It very much reminds me of the principle of “falsification” as formulated by Karl Popper in the “Logic of Sicentific Discovery”. Arrogance leads to failure. The humble approach to regard “reality” as something that might exist but cannot be captured by “proven” hypothesis is a much better approach to project management: We will never be able to capture the future course of events in a project plan. But as a group, we can do a good job to falsify plans that are not consistend with our common perception of what is out there.

    Please continue to raise topics where we tend to leave the way of well founded improvement work,

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