A friend of mine at Signature shared the theory of Launch Chicken with me. Say you’re in a project with a tight schedule with several different areas contributing to its success, say a product launch. Let’s say that you know that the area you are responsible for is not going to make the launch. You’re supposed to hit the abort button, and let the project manager know immediately. But, you know that another area is even further behind than you. So you hold out, hoping that they’ll abort first, taking the blame for delaying the launch, and giving you the time you need to finish your area. Now it becomes a matter of will, like the original game of Chicken, where two kids are driving cars at each other. Who will chicken out first? Of course, what happens if nobody chickens out? Bad things, like the collision that happens in the original game.
How can such catastrophic distortions of information be avoided? My coworker and I were kicking the question around last week, wondering how a project manager would be able to make the right decision based on the carefully massaged data that they are fed at project review meetings. He asked the question, “In a great organization, do you think that the compression of information being fed to the decision makers is less biased/contrived, or are the decision-makers just superior at sifting out the truth from the pre-digested information they get?”
I think it’s probably a combination of both (I’m always distrustful of bi-valued questions). I would suspect that good leaders are able to detect soft spots in people’s presentations, where the numbers don’t reflect reality, and go check out the raw data to find out what’s “really” going on. By doing so, not only will they get a more accurate picture, but they’ll also encourage people to present a more “honest” picture at the next presentation. It’s a virtuous circle of trust and accuracy.
It also ties into my ideas of what an effective information carnivore looks like. Somebody who understands they are higher up the information chain, and are getting only pre-digested summaries of information, but understands their ability to open up those summaries to get a more complete picture. They can’t do that all the time, because they are very busy, and they need to leverage the efficiency of the summarized form, but when problems arise, they understand that the summaries are inherently incomplete. Good information carnivores make good managers.