Sometimes the project manager knows best—despite what senior management may think. Whatever the issue—the go/no-go decision on a project, a budget issue, a personnel assignment, a conversion—project managers are typically well versed on the details of a project and are in the best position to make the right decision. But there are times when the decision-makers above you don’t agree with your strategies and propose an alternative solution that could put your project at risk. What do you do? What action do you take when you see a train wreck about to happen but you may not feel it is your place to do anything about it?

When to speak up; when to shut up
There are a number of areas where a senior management misstep legitimately opens the door for you to comment:

  • Is there a down-line consequence to management’s position or decision, involving your department or projects, which negatively affects the bottom line?
  • Does this misstep have a negative impact on your department or the project’s productivity?
  • Does it somehow obstruct you from pursuing your department or project agenda?

You should step in if the answer to any of these three questions is yes. These scenarios put you in a position where you have a legitimate interest in the decision or action because of the negative effect the directive may have on your project. You must then work to persuade senior management to choose another course.

In other cases, you should not press the issue. Hold back if:

  • Management’s position or decision is centered on a shift in company mission.
  • The position or decision represents a decisive change in operational philosophy and affects more than your department.

In these situations, you should offer input only if asked. Changes or decisions motivated by shifts such as these in a company’s direction or mode of operation generally should be accommodated, not only by you, but also by those managers lateral to you, even if it means coping with inconvenience or even major change in your area.

Make it a question
Putting one opinion up against another tends to be a hit-or-miss solution when the proper course is not clear to all. People naturally become defensive of their point of view and often dig in. This situation is the last thing you want when it’s you against senior management.

Where are you in the process? Has the bad decision been implemented, or are you simply aware that it is coming? If it’s the latter, then now is the time to keep alive the question that led to management’s decision, whatever it may be. If you have a forum, perhaps a line management meeting, you should present the question for discussion, along with various alternatives, including both senior management’s proposed course and your solution. It is important to remain neutral on the decision in a moment like this, however. You should take the opportunity to help the group focus on the flaws of a proposal and not the merits of your alternative.

Point out the potholes
In your presentation of alternatives, when pointing out possible consequences, ask pointed questions and keep them in the air. If certain consequences arise as a result of pushing forth with management’s inadequate plan, how will these consequences be addressed? This component of your argument is the one requiring the greatest diplomacy. But it is also the one that is most likely to give upper management pause and lead them to challenge their own decision.

Let it be their idea
It is also best, when challenging a superior’s plan, to avoid a battle of egos. Perhaps this is not an issue in your situation, and the senior manager in question has no problem with being challenged or corrected. But if this isn’t the case, then it may be prudent to dismiss concerns about ownership of the better plan and present an array of alternatives with no eye toward credit for the winning solution. Clearly, whatever issue is being decided is resting at the level where it belongs. This means that responsibility for the consequences may also rest there. So if the senior executives abandon a risky course and support your idea, let the idea be theirs. Better to have enthusiastic backing of an agenda that will be good for the company and receive no recognition than to spend months cleaning up a mess and wish you’d spoken up.

Follow up with written assessment
Whatever your forum for presenting alternatives, a spoken word is only a spoken word. Once spoken, it can easily be buried under other words. A written word, however, doesn’t fade so easily. Follow up your verbal argument with a written one in formal report form or as an informal e-mail. Copy it to others at the executive level, if appropriate. Again, don’t get into any competition—simply offer an analysis that objectively looks at both benefits and consequences in a way that clearly identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the options under review. If your idea is the best, it will rise to the top. It will have a fair hearing, in any case.

Leverage high-priced opinion
If you have any contractors or consultants on board who are in a position to offer supporting comment, add their views to the written assessment. Unfortunately, some senior managers put more value on a consultant’s opinion than they do on the opinions of their in-house staff.

Collect success stories
If you’re able to offer success stories from other industry players that lend credence to your alternative, do so in an unassuming way. Here again, senior management often places an exaggerated emphasis on what seems to work elsewhere. Copying the other guy doesn’t bother most executives if what the other guy is doing has him pulling ahead of the pack. If you can offer some model that demonstrates success, and it supports your thesis, by all means offer it.

Aim your arguments at an audience, not an individual
Is it possible to depersonalize the process? Is there a particular senior manager handing down this poor decision with whom you don’t want to go nose-to-nose? If you can address your alternatives to senior management in general or to a committee or subgrouping of senior managers rather than singling out the one manager, then do it. The idea is to inspire further discussion, and this is best achieved by bringing the attention of all interested parties back to the issue at hand. Your own solution may not prevail, but further discussion is best in any case.


Let us know

Do you find Scott’s suggestions on changing the minds of senior management helpful? Have you done this successfully yourself? If so, tell us how you did it. Post a message in the discussion board below.