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Say What You Think to Promote Project Success

Not speaking up about controversial issues can cause project failure.

It takes courage to speak up in the face of a perceived flaw or error. This is particularly true when the idea being critiqued has been put forward by someone in a hierarchy above you. First, you might be wrong. Then again you might be right and subject to firing or other penalties. Courage is not enough, though. Timing and diplomacy are also required. It is all about saying the right things at the right time to the right people in the right way.

The Trip to Abilene

The Trip to Abilene is a story by Jerry B. Harvey about how four intelligent and well meaning people took an unpleasant trip to somewhere that none of them wanted to go. The Abilene paradox is a phenomena that takes its name from this anecdote.

The Abilene paradox is the cause of many a misstep by organizations. People do not speak their mind when what is in their mind is opposed to the perceived general opinion of the people around them. Note that the Abilene paradox is different from group think. With group think, people are convinced that the group’s idea is sound. In the paradox, people are consciously aware that they oppose the idea and are acting contrary to their own thoughts and insights.

People don’t speak up because they may think that what they have to say is unimportant, possibly stupid, and/or bound to upset someone. They may fear retribution and censure. Sometimes this fear is quite rational. There are many examples of whistle blowers being persecuted. Many examples of the negative effects of arguing against the favored idea, design, plan, etc. Further, it takes effort to come to the table with a compelling argument. Harvey, quoted Herbert porter a Nixon campaign aid as saying that he “was not one to stand up in a meeting and say that this should be stopped”, a decision he then attributed to “the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player.” Porter was referring to the Watergate scandal.

Few will risk saying that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes is another way of bringing out the difficulty of saying what you think. In this story, a vain emperor is tricked into believing that he was getting a suit of clothes that could only be seen by the most intelligent people. No one but a child had the courage to appear unintelligent and tell the Emperor that he wasn’t wearing any clothes. The emperor himself was too vain to admit that even he couldn’t see the new suit.

Whatever the reason, not speaking up is a problem.


For example, in one project to implement cultural and technological change in a large organization, the project sponsor had in mind aggressive objectives coupled with an aggressive time line and a limited budget. When he stated his desires to his direct reports some of them thought the objectives were great while others hated them. No one argued. Some thought “nothing I could say is going to change the situation so why bother.” Others thought “the change is going to fail, all I have to do is wait.” Still others thought “I don’t want to be seen as a naysayer.”

With tacit consensus on the idea, the next step was to define the approach. How would the project achieve the change within the time frame and budget? Here experts were called in to design and estimate the various parts of the project. Some came back to their managers with the bad news that it was impossible to hit their targets and therefor the overall target could not be met. Whether Driven by the desire to meet the target date or the fear to tell the sponsor that the target date was not viable, the middle managers pushed their experts to make it work.

It is easy to make a complex project work on paper. The realm of planning is conceptual. A complex environment is simulated and, for the most part, over simplified. Planners and estimators can adjust the plan to fit any target date and budget. This may be done intentionally to sell some services or meet an imposed demand from above. Alternatively, It may happen inadvertently because the planners are too optimistic and they don’t adequately manage risk.

Based on an overly aggressive, unrealistic plan the project was approved and kicked off. Expectations were set in the minds of the sponsors and other stakeholders. Off the organization went on a trip to Abilene.
Once the work started and people began to interact, the real world of complexity, ambiguity, resistance and poor communication came into view. To compound the problem, status and progress reports were influenced by fear and the Abilene paradox continued to manifest itself in the area of project reporting and control.

Open Discussion At the Right Time

If one of the many people who knew that there were good reasons to not go on the trip had spoken up and put forward his/her reasoning the others may have listened, thought about the ideas, had a discussion about differences of opinion, risks, rewards, etc. and then made up their minds. The outcome can be far better when there is open discussion.

Doing this at the right time in the life of a project is important. Open discussion requires that people speak their mind in a constructive attempt to reach mutual understanding and agreement. When initiating, and planning a project it is best practice to establish a formal process to cut through the causes of people holding back. Open discussion generally means not only being open to conflicting ideas but to actually promoting conflicts by requiring that alternative ideas are raised even when it seems as if everyone is behind the idea that is on the table. Risk assessment is an example of how a team can create the space and give people permission to “be negative”. It motivates people to bring up issues that in the absence of the risk assessment context would make them seem like they not are being team players. By making risk assessment part of planning as well as part of any major decision there is a greater likelihood that open discussion will take place at the right time.

Sometimes we find that people speak out after what they have to say can no longer be acted upon. Instead of arguing about the details of requirements when the product is delivered, discuss or even argue about them when the requirements are being defined. A statement like “I could have told you so” is a sign of dysfunction. If you think something is wrong, say so.


Diplomacy is artfully dealing with people with sensitivity while being effective. It is knowing the right way to say the right thing in a situation. Diplomacy is necessary as a balance for the assertiveness that is required to be candid. It can be taken too far and then be used as a way to avoid saying anything that might be disturbing to anyone. But in the right measure it is an important skill. It enables a person to say something that is controversial in a way that is least likely to arouse hostility while promoting healthy conflict.


The bottom line is that unless people say what they think at the right time and in the right way about key issues, projects and processes in general are more likely to fail. Commit to being candid and to taking the risk to say something you think will make you unpopular. If you can, make it as easy as possible for others to say what they think.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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