The old Batman shows were awesome. When I mean old. I’m talking about the days of Adam West’s Batman. These were the days of super villains like The Joker, The Riddler, Egghead, The Mad Hatter, and Catwoman. Every episode Batman and Robin would get in kerfuffle with each of these nefarious characters.
Words like Ka-Pow!, Bam!, Ker-Splunk!, Ouch!, and Bonk! would emanate from your television screen and culminate right in front of your eyes!
There was a number of ways these vile characters would escape from the clutches of Batman and Robin. One of my favorite was when the dynamic duo thought they had the villain securely in their grasp, the scoundrel would throw a capsule on the floor.
The next thing you know there was a puff of smoke where the villain used to stand. Once the smoke cleared, the criminal was gone! Foiled again, Batman and Robin.
The classic Smoke Screen approach has been around for a long time and worked effectively for many years. Unfortunately, some of the resources that work on our projects have learned to use the Smoke Screen very effectively themselves. This is how it works…
You are in a status meeting, reviewing the plan that was generated from your IT project planning software. You are going around the room and everyone is providing an update on where things stand, what’s next, and what may be in their way preventing them from moving forward.
You come around to one of the Developers on the project. “Bill, how are things looking for you?” you ask. “Well, not so good…” he starts off. You brace yourself for what’s to come because you know it can’t be good.
“I was only able to complete 20% of what had been assigned to me,” he continues. When you press Bill for why, he starts throwing out reasons that have nothing to do with the real reason why he is late. “Well, I was waiting on a file from the client in order to continue testing”, he says. You know good and well that the previous file would have been just fine to continue testing. “Well, I wasn’t able to get a connection to the right server in order to move the code”, he continues. You know good and well that Bill delayed for over a week in getting the necessary paperwork filled out that would give the team access.
At this time you notice that the room is beginning to fill with smoke. The real reason they are behind is getting muddled and confused. Other people are being implicated that have nothing to do with the reason why this particular resource is running behind. Confusion takes over the meeting and Bill secretly disappears in a cloud of smoke. WHOOSH! Foiled again!
The above scenario sounds like it’s straight out of a comic book, but it’s not.
How to See Through the Smoke Screen
There are things you can do to make sure you are not bamboozled by this smoke screen. The following are some suggestions you can use to see through the smoke:
- Know Your Facts: It’s important to keep up with the facts that have been occurring on the project. You can use your planning software to know exactly when the work was assigned. Keep up with each and every email that begins to reference issues with work not being able to be complete.These issues can begin to surface as just a “by the way…I can’t do this” comment nestled in at the end of the email. It may seem harmless enough early on. But, over time, this issue (that may not be directly related to a delay in the task) may become the basis for the smoke screen later on.Jump on these issues early and often! It may be simple to just gloss over an innocuous statement that something is being held up. This only adds fuel to the fire…which adds smoke to the status. Get out of your seat and walk over to the resource that is having the issue. Find out what is really going on. Determine if they truly are at a stand-still or if there are plenty of other things they can be working on in the meantime.
- Make Sure You are at the Occasions Where the Smoke Screen Can Appear: Smoke Screens are very discretionary where they appear. There may be a status meeting where upper management or the resources manager is in attendance. The person knows that they haven’t finished everything that has been assigned to them in the IT planning software. This is a prime time for a smoke screen to instantly appear. Do you want to guarantee that it will appear? Don’t show up to the meeting! That’s right. The minute someone knows you won’t be there to refute or challenge what they are saying, you can be assured the smoke will make an appearance. That’s why it’s so important to know your facts from the step above.You can objectively recall emails, conversations, and other details about why something is really behind, not just the excuse that is being presented.Not invited? If it’s about your project then you better invite yourself.Don’t know about it? If it’s about your project then you better know about it. It’s part of your job as project manager to make sure these kind of meetings don’t happen without you being present.
- Keep a Chron: Yes, unfortunately, you may have to get to the point where you keep a chronological timeline of what has happened over the duration of the project. It’s extremely sad when it comes to this point, but I’ve worked with internal resources and client resources in the past that necessitate this level of documentation.The goal of the chron is not to bring it out and beat someone over the head with it, although that sometimes is necessary. Ideally, the purpose of the chron will be able to help you refresh your memory as to the order of the events that have taken place and who said what and when they said it.You can use your IT planning software to capture small notes and details along the way that will help pull such a file together if need be. When the smoke screen begins to emerge you can bring this document along with you and use it as a fan.
- Call Them Out on Their Smoke Screen Ways: It may be that the same person does the same thing in putting up a smoke screen time and time again. You may just have to call them out on this fact and ask them not to do this anymore. We’re not talking about publicly embarrassing them in front of their colleagues and superiors. Rather, you can take this conversation off-line. The conversation can go something like this…“Look, over the past couple of projects you seemed to have trouble finishing up some activities. I’ve noticed a tendency to blame it on something else that really isn’t the problem at all. First of all, I’d like to ask you to stop doing that because it introduced a lot of unnecessary confusion to everyone else, and second, is there anything I can do to help you keep up with your current tasks?” The example above is a non-threatening, “what can I do to help” conversation that will end with positive results, especially if the person is a good resource. Otherwise, it puts them on notice that you know what they are up to and aren’t going to put up with that type of behavior on your project.
We know we don’t work with any super villains these days. But, in those instances where a good resource or two has the urge to throw up a smoke screen to try and get away you now have a Bat Fan that will blow the smoke out of the room and uncover the truth!
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