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Topics: Leadership, Organizational Culture, Talent Management
Knowledge rationing – your experience – your solution
Have you ever come across SME’s, sponsors, executives or team members who purposely withhold details relevant to the success of a project? What are their motives for stating their knowledge on a given subject at the 30,000-foot level and purposely obscuring or leaving out details? What has been your experience and what have you done to bring resolution to this problem?
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I do not have such experience, but this is a good question. I am looking forward to seeing answers too.

This happens a lot in the contracting space. I have been involved with both good and bad BA's. The good one's will insist upon going through the project phases (all of them). Those that batten through the process and keep things close are usually the BA's that are protecting their own interests - more life cycle opportunities, etc. Obviously these are the BA's I have intentionally included with all status conferences, risk updates so that I can continuously get more information on. I have also noticed that these projects do not meet the organization's expectations in terms of KPI's (meeting margin expectations, utilization (resource savings), etc.).

The bottom line for me on these types of projects is that the Project Manager must be strategic in executing the project planning phase in terms of insisting upon turnovers, formalized reviews and be able to invest in managing a rigid project.

It is, in my view the responsibility of the PM to make the project team aware of why the PM is doing what they are doing. Communication is absolutely imperative, especially with the organization I am a part of. It is very employee friendly and the resources the PM's use here are shared resources and cannot be dedicated.
Hoarding knowledge on an individual level might be insecurity but on a broader basis reflects a poor company culture. Defusing unfounded fears can be done by peers and one's reporting manager, but if it is a cultural dysfunction then the leadership needs to take some direct steps...
At the leadership level, there are some situations where information can't be shared, such as an upcoming contract announcement. In other situations I've seen information withheld where it could provide schedule and/or budget relief so that people don't think they can now use the extra time or money held in reserve. In those cases, we work to the rule of, "The plan is the plan, until it changes." (Don't change your plans in anticipation. Wait until a formal announcement is made.)

In the project team, I see withholding information for more problematic reasons. One is called the "land grab". Some teams will consciously avoid coordinating with other teams to sub-optimize a project around their own group's needs. Essentially, when other teams find that one team went rouge, they all have to change their own plans because it's now too late to change the offending team's part.

The other is when teams don't want a PM, and will withhold information to try and control the project themselves. That usually ends badly as they are only looking at their own work, not how much disruption it causes to everyone else, and they're not communicating with the impacted groups.
I think that Keith and I have traveled the same road:

I’ve also seen knowledge rationing at the executive level for "schedule relief," as it is generally believed that announcing such an item before the deadline comes would mean that the project team would "slow down the pace" as the pressure cooker would now be on simmer. However, the teams usually know ahead of time as the pressure cooker starts to "leak" after being on high for such a length of time. I guess the next analogy would be a "cracked pot", but I’ll leave that one alone.

At the BA or SME level, I’ve seen knowledge rationing on the "land grab" side of the equation as well. Large projects often have what is supposed to be "complimentary experts" from different divisions that should challenge each other to a better outcome. However, they are often received emotionally as "competing experts" who are trying to win the prize that makes them the only expert standing at the end of the project. Hence, knowledge is NOT fully shared, and the project suffers for it.

In truth, I’ve seen knowledge rationing at all levels in a project - some of it known at the time, and some known retrospectively. Even when there are good leaders and a culture of cooperation, you have the trump card of an individual’s human nature, which can easily get played on a trigger (i.e., an emotional trigger).

I believe that a PM should go into a project prepared for the possibility of knowledge rationing. Obviously, we should do everything possible to get our accountability and alignment structures in place to mitigate this possibility, but we should be prepared with strategies and soft skills to deal with it when it occurs or when you believe it is occurring.

Having knowledge rationing occurring on your project doesn’t mean that you (as the PM) is doing something wrong. Maybe yes, you need to do more to mitigate it – but it’s going to happen none the less due to its link to human nature. So, give us more examples that you have seen, and also add how you dealt with it. This is great information for ALL of us.
Super interesting subject! Hoarding information can occur for many reasons but some additional reasons can be (1) a subtle form of bullying (2) fear of losing control or feeling threatened
It is very true that you should assume a project will have knowledge rationing members, identified by listing members by level of expertise and inversely by the frequency of informative input during problem solving, as a possible systematic methodology. Also consistent with what George Freeman wrote, is that it may not be a culture brought on by the PM. The PM, however, owns the culture now and can target a respected "guardian" and help them make peace with the team, and become an early adopter for the new culture.

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