A Good Kind of Scared?

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

As All Hallow's Eve (Hallowe'en) approaches, it is fun to watch the stores fill up with all things orange, black and ghoulish. Most of us enjoy some elements of this bizarre holiday, whether it's the costumes, the children or the prankish attitude associated with it. But most of us can also recount some eerie moment when we were frightened—genuinely spooked—by the trappings or antics of the day. As the moment passed, we laughed, breathed a sigh of relief and noted that moment in the log of our experiences. It passed, but we still remember it to this day. My sister spotted a substantial (but not exaggerated) plastic spider in my sack of candy one year, and pointed it out to me in a panicked voice (knowing my propensity for arachnophobia). I rolled away from the candy as if it was the plague. I searched for something to crush the spider with. As she laughed, I realized the fright was in my head, unwarranted.

Projects afford their own frightening moments—their own creepy spiders. We balk, gasp and breathe a sigh of relief to learn they weren't as bad as we thought. Be they delays, customer concerns, cost overruns or crises of another stripe, team members sometimes sound the alarm when the alarm isn't warranted. Unlike my sister, their intent is not to alarm (in most instances), but to raise the warning flags in time for action to be taken.

So how can we discern between the "BOO" and the tangible risks we should be warned about? And how can we know when we should be afraid? The Halloween experience actually teaches us a great deal about risk. Everything that looks dark and evil is not dark and evil. Everything that says "BOO" will not harm us. Everything that drips in red is not dripping in blood. It teaches us about discernment under pressure, in the dark, when creepy thoughts are running through our heads.

We learn to discern by virtue of a combination of experience and analogous experience. We see a Grim Reaper with plastic scythe and realize he will not harm us. We extrapolate when we encounter a devil with pitchfork or headless axeman. In our projects, we begin to discern by learning the customer, but we also need to be able to extrapolate. The way in which that's done is by learning the behaviors of the threatening versus the non-threatening. The threatening customer is one who will escalate around us. The non-threatening customer will come to us first. Thus, if anyone starts displaying the behavior of escalating problems around us, they're worth being frightened of. Unfortunately, we don't want to wait until it happens to find out what it will be. We need a mechanism to find out which behaviors they lean toward.

Again, the lesson can come from Halloween and the three most familiar words associated with that day, "Trick or Treat." "Trick or treat" became code through the past century for discerning the intent of others. We ask the children who come to our door, essentially, "What is your intent?" Likewise, we should be looking to our customers, our team members and other stakeholders to identify intent. The question may not be as simplistic, but the outcome can be. "Here's my contact information if there's ever a concern. Here's when you can expect a response if I'm not immediately available. Can you think of any situations when you might feel compelled to turn to someone else? I'd like to know so that I can pick an able lieutenant to fill in any gaps." By asking this, you can find out what it would take to turn them from friend to foe or from ally to challenger. And, you can set the stage to find them a resource to service that need when you're not available or if you're not the right person.

With the information about our stakeholders in hand, we can share that data readily with our team, so that they can be calm and relaxed when they should be and frightened when they should be. Knowing the clients' and stakeholders' propensities for action gives the whole team a level of empowerment that can't otherwise exist. If all calls regarding Version 1.5.3 need to go to one particular person, the team can now echo what we tell the customer. If there are certain thresholds that cannot be crossed, the team can echo that information as well. It's a matter of knowing when to be scared.

Being concerned is a healthy condition, if we're alarmed at the appropriate times at the appropriate things. If we can identify code words to ensure we know what types of concerns we're potentially facing, that can take the edge off some of our fears. If we can tell team members what should and should not frighten them along the way, that can ease the pressures still more.

But for those things that startle us along the way, and we don't know how to react ... it's OK to endorse an approach that says some alarm is acceptable. The key comes in stopping the alarm at the first "BOO," and not letting it go further. That comes from a clear understanding of levels of tolerance, understanding of risk, appreciation of the nature of risk and the communication of that information to the team. There will always be risks with us. The key is to pick the right ones to worry about.

"From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night. May the good Lord deliver us." - Traditional Cornish Children's prayer

Be afraid ... be very afraid ....

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