Actual Degree of Shared Understanding?

The Responsibility for Professional Skepticism, Part 2 of 3

Part I of this series highlighted the need for “Professional Skepticism” regarding estimates and [so-called] “Best Practices.”

This second part examines the role of professional skepticism in warding off preventable problems regarding extent of [Actual] Shared Understanding.

Next week, Part III will address Professional Skepticism with respect to an effort’s Degree of Commitment.

Extent of [Actual] Shared Understanding

Over the course of several decades in the tech sector, many…many…times, I’ve observed a baffling—nearly pathological—phenomenon. Odds are…you’ve seen it too.

It occurs when otherwise capable, accomplished professionals rush (typically in a relatively brief, somewhat chaotic, meeting) to demonstrate they are “on top” of things and “get” (understand) the scope & nature of a complex effort (e.g., project, product, event).

Perhaps you’ve seen something like this actual case?

  • Intense political pressure to “stop fiddling around with planning” because the effort’s “needs are obvious” and “it’s time to get busy” with the “real work of delivey”
  • Then, a multitude of affected executives uniformly & vocally expressed deep understand of the effort’s complexities…after reading a brief memo
  • The executives uncritically accepted & approved the major effort’s significant budget, incredibly demanding (unrealistic by an order of more than 5x, as later learned) schedules, and optimistic delivery claims
  • Yet there was negligible evidence anyone meaningfully understood the effort’s scope or considered obvious implications of key choices or dependencies…let alone, comprehended them

The Result?

Approximately fourteen months and twenty (plus) million dollars later (against a six-month and five million dollar budget)…the effort collapsed after its third (fourth?) “fresh-start” when [virtually] every key stakeholder slowly realized the effort’s outcomes completely failed to address their needs.

  • (One can only marvel how needs transform from ‘obvious’ to ‘completely unmet’ only after squandering an enormous investment and more than a year’s effort.)

Would you be surprised the effort then quickly devolved into political blamestorming? Didn’t think so…neither was I. 

Actual Degree of Shared Understanding?

Actual Degree of Shared Understanding?


Complexity Requires Understanding

How many times have you seen major efforts rushed into execution based on political necessity and invalid assumptions of shared understanding? If ‘obvious’ needs were uniformly understood…and the effort was appropriately structured, budgeted and scheduled to fulfill those needs…then it would be highly unlikely to discover unmet needs after expending in excess of 100% of budget and schedule.

Is there another explanation for such failures? Could such failures be explained (at least in part) by a lack of [actual, as distinct from stated] shared understanding?

Professional Skepticism

To prevent such preventable outcomes is one reason the POP-Approach stresses use of Professional Skepticism…especially during POP’s Pause Points.

Complex efforts require understanding complex relationships…a degree of understanding which is not obtained by reading a brief memo. In such instances, shared understanding arises from a shared experience…which requires use of an appropriate Social Process.

To obtain a shared understanding through shared experience—in an effort’s earliest days—it is important to ensure affected parties participate in social processes that assure mutual understanding and selection (as well as exclusion) of such elements of an effort as: rationale (for the effort); definition of the effort (scope & nature of the effort); suitability of approach & participation; sufficiency of resources, such as budget & schedule; and the like.

  • Curiously, shared agreement regarding what won’t be done assures greater clarity than focusing on what will be done.

Absence of Shared Understanding

There are many indicators of the absence of meaningful Shared Understanding; three merit special attention:

  1. More than de minimus “Scope Creep;
  2. Late arriving and/or materially changing requirements; and/or
  3. Materially unmet/unmeetable deliverable/outcome expectations.

Detecting any one of these indicators is evidence of the lack of actual, shared understanding—in spite of assertions of “getting it” to the contrary.

You Decide

What’s been your experience when the actual degree of shared understanding is meaningfully less than what was stated? A recipe for success? Or, leading indicator of failure?

Do you agree that the problem of lack of meaningful shared understanding is preventable by the appropriate use of social processes that create a shared experience?

In the Next Post

In the next post…the Responsibility for Professional Skepticism, Part 3 of 3 with respect to the [actual] degree of commitment to an effort.

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