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COC – The Chain of Optimistic Communication July 1, 2009

Posted by mwidlake in Management, Perceptions.
Tags: ,

Well, after the very long, technology-based post of yesterday, a smaller one today, on a management theme.

I came up with this concept of the Chain of Optimistic Communication about a year ago, in one of my presentations on disasters. As a potential disaster, I’ve converted the relevant PowerPoint slides into a Flash movie. This is the flash movie. The second slide is an animation of what the Chain of Optimistic Communication is, the rest is some thoughts on it’s impact and how to avoid it.

{If the flash movie fails and you can read PowerPoints, you can download the
PowerPoint here}

{And another thing, It’s my first Flash attempt, I know the page numbering is duff, I know the layout is a little off, I might fix it when I have had some more sleep}.

If you can’t be bothered with the Flash movie {go on, it’s more fun than reading stuff!}, this is what the Chain of Optimistic Communication is:

  • You, the worker at the coal face are asked by your boss how the development of the new system is going. You tell your boss that it’s not going well at all and you list 3 things that have not been done, one that has been done and one that is partially done. You don’t mention that the partially done one you plan to do tonight, fuelled by coffee and whisky.
  • Your boss tells their boss that progress is being made, half the tasks are in hand but they “need to proactively re-address a resource mismatch or two”.
  • This top level boss tells the VP of development that all is in hand, resources are in place and all bases are covered, but more budget for planning would be wise. 
  • VP of Development reports to the board that the latest Agile development using cross-skilled resource pools is on track to deliver the milestone implementation. Or something.

ie all levels lie, ever so slightly optimistically as they communicate up the management chain.

As a result, the higher the manager, the more rosy the picture and the more out of touch they seem to the worker at the coal face.

When I presented this idea, I got a surprisingly positive response from the audience. It was the most common thing people talked to me about after the presentation, so I guess it struck a chord. Or else it was the point in the presentation when the sound of the caterers dropping a try outside woke them up.

Another side of the Chain of Optimistic Communication is that the higher the manger, the more they are led to believe all is OK and the more often, it seems to them, that apparently “under control” projects flip to become disasters when the rosy white lies have to be ditched when the reality becomes so grim. Often with no warning. No wonder managers get so many heart attacks and strokes.


{This is me just trying to get the flash movie to play with my website headers, it will disappear in a couple of hours flash movie}



1. PdV - July 2, 2009

So True !

This is why it is so dangerous to have plan speaking architects (the ones with real experience) talking to higher management. They might actually convey true information.

Lukily, some rare species of management, generally in young-ish and growing companies, are aware of this. those are the ones to work for.

2. John Brady - July 2, 2009

I came across the same thing years ago in one of those funny joke type of stories about projects. I’ve managed to find a copy of it on the web, and have pasted it below. Exactly as you said, a report on a poorly performing product or plan gets continually reworded until it people think that it is a well performing product or project.

In the beginning was the plan.
And then came the assumptions.
And the assumptions were without form.
And the plan was without substance.
And darkness was upon the face of the workers.
And they spoke among themselves saying ‘it’s a crock of crap and it stinks’.
And the workers went unto the supervisors and said ‘it’s a pile of dung and we can’t live with the smell’
And the supervisors went unto their managers saying ‘it’s a container of excrement and it is very strong such that none may abide by it’
And the managers went unto their directors saying ‘it’s a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide its strength’
And the directors spoke among themselves saying unto them ‘it contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong’
And the directors went to the vice presidents saying unto them ‘it promotes growth and it is very powerful’.
And the vice presidents went to the president saying unto him ‘this new plan will actively promote the growth and vigor of the company with very powerful effects’.
And the president looked upon the plan and saw that it was good.
And the plan became policy.

Which just shows the inherent problem in all management summary reports, and of repeated summaries of summaries. In one other company I worked for the managers all had to do monthly summary reports, which you just know went up a level to more managers who summarised these even more. So goodness knows what the CEO or COO was being told about what was actually happening at the bottom where the real workers were.

I also find it annoying when people say “always say positive things, never negative things”. Sometimes there are only negative things to say, and there is a reason for that – because things have gone wrong. The message should be that things are wrong and action is needed to fix it.


3. mwidlake - July 2, 2009

Thanks John, Piet.

I like that story John :-). And, like you, I have been annoyed over the years by cultures where you never pass up bad news only good news – “We sort out the bad stuff within our own team!”. That’s OK up to a point but meanwhile everyone else is being told all is fine. So you now not only does your team have to do all the other work that has come along but somehow fix the crooked project as well without anyone noticing. If you can.

This issue is certainly not a new one and many have noted it before, but I think the title might be new – I’ve certainly never heard anyone mention a Chain of Optimistic Communication before. I’m quietly pleased with it {thought I can’t be being that quiet, I’ve blogged it 🙂 )

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