Shooting the Messenger

One of the first things one learns as a risk analyst is that you better develop a tough skin. No one wants to hear about potential problems, and some people, as today's story in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) points out, can get down right nasty about it.

In one example, the CEO of a software company got so angry about a a product continuing to slip its schedule, that he decided to make an example and fired the VP who told him about the latest slip. The CEO wanted to send a message, in other words: "I finally got so exasperated that I let the word go out that I simply did not want to hear any more 'excuses' about why the schedule could not be met".

Low and behold, no one was willing to be the next messenger ("No one ever came forward to tell me the truth about the status of the program for a very long time thereafter") which in the end, he admitted, cost the company even more time and money since no one was making decisions with objective information.

Funny how that CEO was evidently surprised by this - shoot people with bad news, get no more bad news, but reality still bites you in the butt anyway!

One of favorite maxims in relation to risk communication is by the late Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman who said in the relation to the NASA Challenger disaster and NASA's reluctance to hear bad news, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Again, you can shoot all the messengers you want (or embrace only those who bring you good news), but what is - is. Live with it.


Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City