Competition is a wonderful thing. In its purest sense it makes engineers better. What offends me is how competitive instincts unrestrained by a moral compass can have outcomes so at odds with performance. I refer to this aspect of our profession the witch-hunt.
TheFreeDictionary.com defines a witch-hunt as “an investigation carried out ostensibly to uncover subversive activities but actually used to harass and undermine those with differing views.” I would offer an alternative definition applicable to engineering: an investigation initiated by opportunists to promote an agenda regardless of performance. The witch-hunt can be triggered by a power change, failure to achieve a goal, a pay-back, fear… the list is endless.
When the witch-hunt trigger is a change to power structure, get ready – the incoming elite have their own engineering firm of choice, who has never let them down, has better capabilities than yours, and so on. Their experts will be in to visit and report how they would have gone in a completely different and smarter direction, would be further along, would have resolved lingering questions sooner, would not have any change orders, etc. There will be a startling contrast between the cordial tones of the visits versus the message that gets delivered to the new elite, especially if the customer does not attend the meeting.
In a witch-hunt deliverables have to be accelerated regardless of the deadlines set. And reviews require extra preparation. Pay close attention to quality and forget about informal reviews. No review is informal. Leave nothing behind at meetings (unless it is the quality of a formal deliverable). Rapid intelligence gathering is critical to understand the new power structure. Senior management should be brought in. The average project manager is not necessarily wired for this type of balancing act. If senior management is not visible; well, that is just another evidence of neglect that the witch hunter will use to build the case.
Another feature of the witch-hunt is ambushes, with meetings a popular opportunity. Watch for meetings where the agenda you get is verbal, not written. Watch for that small informal meeting you thought you were attending; you may find yourself in a room full of suits and power point presentations with you in the cue to present on a topic you did not know you needed to prepare. In a witch-hunt, get to all meetings early. Getting information on the meeting from more than one source is usually a good idea.
Take a lesson from depositions. The opposing attorney does not expect you to incriminate yourself; quite the contrary. The opposing attorney will speak affirmatively of your contribution to a project while encouraging you to implicate your colleagues (why do you think your employer missed those deadlines?). The witch hunter’s team seeks the same type of implication from your staff. Prepare them so they do not inadvertently assist in developing the story arc that is created at your expense. And watch for the opportunists on your staff who may elect to embrace the narrative, support it, and go work for the witch hunter.
Hunkering down and working your tail off can buy enough time until the antagonist has an opportunity to fail, and their tactics can be seen for what they are, opportunism and deflection. Another option, inconceivable to most firms, is firing the client. If it is a bad payer this is a no-brainer, though sometimes the warmth of relationships with the customer can interfere with the right decision.
A witch-hunt becomes particularly interesting when the Owner is setting the stage for litigation. Critics determined to find and document dissatisfaction require a team of responders to sift the paper, sort the legitimate issues, and document how you responded to each and why. Searching out the underlying issues – for example, if the real issue is not faulty design or construction but a different feedstock or a bad contract to which the customer agreed – may determine if the customer is deflecting attention away from the real problem by pointing the finger at you. In a design-build situation, it is easy for the engineer and builder to revert to their natural mistrust, engage in second guessing, and miss the real agenda.
A witch-hunt is defined by its agenda, so getting to that agenda is an important determinant for strategy. Your sales group can be helpful in reading these murky waters and navigating them successfully. They are trained to see the formal and informal systems in place and figure out the winners and losers in a given scenario. How is your failure a success for your customer?
If you are caught in a witch-hunt, how do you deal with it? Here are a few ideas:
- Find allies on the client side who can keep you apprised of what is being said. These have to be people who are invested in the project and whose sense of fair play is being violated. Maybe it is the person who hired you but if they are in the penalty box with key decision makers, that will not help.
- Stay ahead of the witch hunter. Incent your team to outperform them. Motivate the team by passing on the feedback, challenging them, and offering rewards. Authorize overtime to beat the schedule. Success is the best revenge.
- Document everything. Confront inconsistencies (i.e., “I am baffled by the negative report on progress. When we met, your representative was complimentary of our progress; we are 80 percent complete and delayed from completing only due to a decision with respect to permitting, which is not our responsibility.”).
- Let your boss know, so he isn’t blind-sided the way you were, and can help you manage the situation.
- If opportunists from your team jump ship, you are better off. Do not talk them into staying. Help them leave sooner than later. This means listening to trusted people on the floor. It can mean reading email, which as an employer you can do. Everybody will be happier if you act decisively.
I would rather not deal with the drama. But witch-hunts are real. When I am in the mood of blue sky optimism, I see benefits: they provide education, they thin the herd, and they eliminate quality and work flow issues. Witch-hunts tell you who your friends are.
What do you think?
Executive Vice President
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