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Project Status Whistle Blowing

“Around here, we keep half the people ignorant so they aren’t prejudiced, and half the people prejudiced so they aren’t ignorant.”

— Dr. Jay Shulman, c.1980

First, consider the following case study background:

Because people don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, and are sometimes afraid that their management may “kill the messenger”, employees are often very reluctant to bring unwelcome but critically important project status information to their management. (This is sometimes known as the “mum effect.”) Therefore, it is common that important project status information does not make it to the level of management that can take corrective action to do something about it. In fact, it is typical that the farther up the hierarchy a manager is, the less information he or she will have about the project. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that those who have the authority to change things, are the very people who do not know the necessity of the change and/or who do not have sufficient information to enable an appropriate change.

Whistle blowing (see below) is an extreme case of bearing the bad news up the hierarchy. Sadly, whistle blowing can be dangerous to one’s own career. Unfortunately, whistle blowing in some organizations is considered illegitimate behavior bordering on insubordination. Even when people blow the whistle, management can ignore it (sometimes known as the “deaf effect”), essentially saying “don’t give me bad news that I don’t want to hear.”

All this is counterproductive to projects, whose success depends on sound decisions and timely corrections of deviance from plan. For instance, issues that are not elevated to the proper decision-maker before they mature into full-blown problems, become a risk to the success of the entire project. If the decision-maker is kept in the dark, or refuses to make a decision, or punishes the bearer of bad news, then he or she will no longer be in a position to take timely corrective action to keep the project on track to success.

Then consider these informal definitions so that we know we’re talking about the same thing:

Whistle blowing is reporting someone (usually your own management) for doing something illegal or unethical. (Like intelligent disobedience from the questions on the Project Scope Module, we are well advised to pick our battles wisely. Even the Federal whistle blowing office admits that whistleblowers generally are retaliated against, even though that is illegal.)
Recall that in this context, intelligent disobedience, like civil disobedience, is refusing to go along with something that is unethical (whether it’s legal or not), while fully realizing that we may be punished or penalized for disobeying, and being willing to take the penalty for the “greater cause”. As Harry Truman said, “if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” The “intelligent” part comes from not being belligerent and especially from picking our battles wisely.
Insubordination, on the other hand, is probably less-than-intelligent, since it seems to usually be belligerent, not pick its battles wisely, and not be for a greater cause such as ethics. It usually results in management taking career-threatening actions against the employee.
Finally, there’s just garden variety differences of opinion. While it should be obvious that that should always be encouraged — two heads are better than one, after all — nevertheless, in some organizations, it actually isn’t!

Now answer the following questions:

a) What type of organizational culture might inhibit whistle blowing? Why?

b) What should a project manager do to encourage his project team’s willingness to report project problems?

c) How can a project manager effectively report project problems to the sponsor, stakeholders, and senior management? What techniques might the PM use?

If you have not worked for an organization that had internal auditors, Inspectors General (IGs), or other internal inspectors then skip to Part E, below. If you have worked for such an organization, then answer Part D:

d) If you have worked for an organization that had internal auditors, IGs, or inspectors, were they effective? Were they welcome? What, in your experience, was done well and what was done poorly with such internal auditors and inspectors?

e) If you have not worked for an organization that had internal auditors, inspectors, or IGs, do you think it would be beneficial, detrimental, or problematic? Why?


Now that you have completed this class, what do you see as the biggest challenge for Project Managers and the global and virtual project teams of the Twenty-First Century? Consider in your answer, how fast the world is changing, especially (but not exclusively) the world of IT (the IT environment, for example, such as cloud computing, mobile devices, system and information security, etc.) and try to relate the question to these changes or the rate of change… Please feel free to use your own experience of working with your virtual teams combined with our textbook readings, weekly lectures, and the lessons from our discussions during the semester to answer this question.

If you use the words or ideas from another, please be sure to use proper citations and references. (This is your last opportunity to use our classroom model before you begin to apply it in your other classes, in your professional lives and, for many of you, in graduate school!) Our classroom model is to answer the question(s) in your own words. Use a credible source to support your discussion. Provide an example to demonstrate your underestanding of the concept or discussion.

I send you off, knowing you are moving toward high management positions! I hope your work with us in Project Management helps you find success, both professionally and personally!


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