Project Managers: Are You Looking for a Red Herring?
By Ammar W. Mango
Here is a picture to help you find it. For those not familiar with the term, a red herring does not exist, except in someone’s imagination. This is why in business lingo, when someone says, for example, that “throw him a red herring,” it means that ask him for something that does not exist and impossible to achieve. Usually the request is made for a few reasons:
- to use you as a free resource.
to get you busy and keep you away hunting for the impossible.
to prove that you are incapable of getting the job done.
to try to get you to achieve something that is almost impossible.
It is not only customers that ask for red herrings in the workplace. Managers do this to their subordinates quite often. Professionals even do this to themselves.
To demonstrate, here is a personal example: A long time ago, a friend called me urgently, telling me that he has a great opportunity that he wants to pull me in on. The area I was living in was known for providing certain parts to the global markets and he told me he has a buyer that will take any and all parts I can find in the market that meet a set specification. It sounded lucrative. Beware the red herring: After researching the market for a while and getting disappointed at my inability to fulfill what seemed like a simple request, I was officially introduced to my first red herring.
The problems with trying to find the red herring is that it takes, evidently, a long time to search just to find out that the request cannot be met, because as we said earlier the red herring does not exist. This leads to a lot of wasted time and effort, and then disappointment all around.
What makes red herring quests tricky is that they sometimes appear doable at first glance. So one becomes excited and tries to fulfill the request wholeheartedly. Then morale goes down and self doubt settles in, as one starts wondering “what is wrong with me? how come I cannot get this done right?” Then finally, the conclusion comes in hindsight that the request was for a red herring.
Usually engineers and programmers fall victim to red herring pursuits. Someone, a sales person or a client, gets them excited about an idea, and they are too proud to question the value, the effort required, or the feasibility. So they get busy and stay busy for a while trying to get the work done to no avail; what they were asked to do is not doable.
As a project manager, others will throw you red herrings all the time. The trick is not to get in hot pursuit too hastily. Sometimes the client will ask your team for impossible tweaks, just to squeeze you for more, even if that “more” is no added value to the project. Sometimes, a client is too afraid that you will abandon them if they accept the work, so they keep asking for red herrings so you can never close the project. Even team members might play this game on you: a team member will tell you that he needs certain information from client personnel that they would not provide to him, just to get you off his back, and have more time to finish his or her tasks. Finally, when you as a project manager are on the bench between projects, there is a possibility that your own management will send you on a red herring quest, researching something of low value just to keep you busy, or away from them. There are lots of red herrings in a project manager’s world, and in business in general.
So, how to prevent ourselves from going after red herrings? Here are some tips from personal experience:
- Do not let bravado and machismo pull you into areas that you are not familiar with and do not have any competitive advantage compared to others already in the market.
If the parameters requested prove hard to find, this is not the time to persevere, but to question the parameters given to start with. Try to tweak the parameters a bit and see if you find what you are looking for. Go back to the person who made the request with alternatives that are more realistic than what he or she asked for.
Start with finding what is out there, without focusing too much on the strict requirements you were given. This will help you gauge where the requirements are on the real world spectrum. You might quickly find out that they are not realistic and save yourself some time and money.
Do not let others use you as a free resource to test the market. Make sure that the other party has a stake in your success and that they are also putting in some commitment into this. Once I was offered a partnership where I bring the business, I manage the company, I build the product, and I sell it, I was waiting for him to tell me where his part comes in. It turned out to be collecting a share of the profit.
When someone asks you to do something, whether a boss or a client, engage them in the work, and do not hide from them trying to fulfill their request. Maybe when they find out how much effort it will take from you and them they will decide they have better use of their and your time.
Do not confuse innovation process with red herring quests. Innovation is a process that has more structure than most think. Once it becomes wishful thinking without any measurable progress, or clear decisions to continue or cancel effort, they become red herrings.
Finally, try not to throw others red herrings. If you do this often you will lose trust from those around you. It will become hard to take any of your requests seriously. If you have to give an assignment with low possibility of success, be clear with the team member that what you are giving her or him is hard and might not be achievable. Also, schedule regular reviews to check on progress, and to avoid too much wasted effort on a red herring.