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Can you handle the truth....?

Dr Simon Davey delicately probes the veracity of Jack Nicholson's assertion - "You want answers?  You want answers?  You can't handle the truth....!!

Dr Simon Davey goes looking for the elephants in the room and wonders whether someone in Information Security should have stood up and been counted at a leading communications provider.

“You want answers?.. YOU WANT ANSWERS?....  YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”

The Jack Nicholson character (Colonel Jessep) in "A Few Good Men"  -( is not the kind of person I can respect or look up to but he does make a good point in that final courtroom scene. Sometimes leaders and organisations simply can't handle the “God damn truth”.

A fair proportion of my work involves ICT consulting in the charity sector. Like any assignment, the first task is always working out what the actual problem is - the presenting issue is rarely the key issue. The key challenges include not only specifying the project (agreed deliverables and defined outcomes always help) but of defining project boundaries, agreeing the actual problem to be addressed and respecting both my own professional integrity and that of the client.

Yet when was an ICT project ever just an ICT project? Sure, creating a requirements specification for a database is relatively straightforward but as soon as you undertake business analysis activities you start to uncover all sorts of interesting things. The word ‘review’ should definitely come with a health warning and danger money.

“We live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it?”

The role of the consultant is interesting, varied and exciting. It’s usually short term and project based (compared to several years in a staff role). It’s rarely fully embedded - but being an outsider has its advantages. Far too often it fits a template or process for bigger firms (the ‘Henry Ford’ version of ""..any assignment as long as it’s 13 weeks long and keeps a team of six busy...").

But are you really going to be accountable for the results? Are you going to experience the pain of the change from your recommendations? Do you actually care deeply enough what happens or is it intellectually sufficient and financially rewarding enough to do what’s needed within the walls and move on?

The walls might be teams or they might be departments. They might be the domains of Directors or the personal fiefdoms of key leaders. They are often well guarded but not always for the right reasons. It’s good to have boundaries but I can’t help looking slightly nervously over my shoulder if the FD wants to, albeit metaphorically, shoot me if I stray.

“I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom!”   

And yet I can’t help think that we’re missing a trick by staying within our walls. We have an ethical obligation to investigate the problem and clarify the underlying, deep-seated issues. To come up with the best possible solution. To employ our expertise, experience and wisdom to get to the bottom of things and deliver the right result, not just the result which might suit a politically prevailing agenda at the time, especially if that’s a very narrow agenda. It would be a dereliction of our professional duty to be anything less than completely honest – I might as well be a political scriptwriter…

A lot of what I experience relates to people problems and underinvestment of resources. Issues which have lingered far too long or seemed intractable – “file it in ‘too hard” and hope it goes away’.  Involving a consultant is often the first step to getting help but it can be difficult for a client to stand up and admit they have a really serious problem.

It would be easy not to go there, it’s almost never in the brief, it’s rarely obvious when you walk in the front door and it’s hard and often unpleasant work.  But it needs addressing. This can be one heck of a challenge when IT is managed by Finance Managers and Directors of Resources – not always known for their understanding of emotional intelligence, change or appreciation of wider people issues. If it’s your client’s leadership (worse still their bosses) at fault or if something has been woefully under-resourced or badly managed, it can be hard to point the message and pull the trigger but we need to do so.

“You don’t want the truth because deep down, you want me on that wall, you NEED me on that wall.”

Clients need us to tell the truth, the absolute truth, whether they like it or not. They need us to see the view on all sides of the wall. The person commissioning you may be part of the problem so it’s important to build a breadth of relationships and report to the right person. I like to think I have enough breadth of work that if any particular client does shoot the messenger (i.e. me) I don’t have to worry if I do get fired and don’t get paid. So that’s my red line. Tell the truth even if they fire you for it. Be respectful but be brutally honest. Choose your timing, your audience and your tone but tell the truth. Life’s too short to write reports noone will read or act on, give bland sanitised presentations (“don’t scare the horses old man!”) and walk away knowing you made absolutely no real difference and that that old elephant is still sitting in the corner while everyone ignores him.

But who made us judge, jury and executioner? What right does a consultant have to define all the terms, create a firestorm and walk away? What about ‘authority to act’? What about our own self-awareness?

Every project is an individual call – it has to be. I don’t go looking for problems where there aren’t any but I do listen to what’s said to me and staff will be honest with outsiders once you’ve built that trust. I don’t make up issues that don’t exist but I will analyse my findings and present them back to the client and leader with evidence rather than ignoring the elephant in the room/department/organisation. I don’t have the right to simply dig where I want but I do have the ethical and professional obligation to speak up once someone has shown me what’s under the carpet - to tell the truth, often the uncomfortable and painful truth. And be prepared to help mop up the mess but that’s where change management comes in very handy.

We must continually question ourselves and our work. Authority to act can only come from the client but the authority you really need won’t arrive on day one. Trust is earned as long as we build relationships and move away from the simple transactional model. We must continually learn from our experiences and from our peers to continually improve our self awareness and ensure we do the right thing the right way.

“I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way.”

It would be easier to do the job, take the money and walk quietly away but it wouldn’t be right. Who wants to get paid for putting lipstick on a pig? Sorry Col Jessep, that’s not the way. I’m here to fight for the truth… and we can all handle it. (Elephant exits stage left.)








Dr Simon Davey, Freeman




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