Perception management is a term I coined with my boss whilst on a Naval deployment to Iraq.  It literally meant managing the perception of our operator brethren to ensure that potential unfavourable outcomes were positively received.  Let me explain with a real life example.

When ever one of our core combat system components had a failure, we were called to investigate and repair.  As the team leader, I had to quickly grasp the gravity of the situation and report to the (always tired and often angry)  operator team leader what was wrong and how long it would take to fix.

Whilst it was tempting to placate them by giving them an optimistic repair time, more often than not I would find myself explaining why my team took 25 minutes instead of 20.  Which trust me, at 3am when there’s a lot happening, wasn’t pleasant.

So if I was unsure, I started giving the pessimistic answer.  More often than not, my team came in early and we were praised for working hard to get the problem fixed.  If things did go bad, we came in “on time” and all was well.  The operator leader could plan appropriately and we would be left alone to fix the problem.  Perfect.

The second, and slightly cheeky aspect to “perception management” was to make some of the team do non-critical but highly visible tasks so that the operators had the ‘warm fuzzy’ that we were looking after them.  Even though I knew the problem would be fixed by one guy on a laptop tapping away in another room.  We had the cleanest computer filters in seven Navies.

So why am I bringing this up?  A little while ago I found myself in a situation where I should have used some perception management.  Riding the critical path we relied on a third party who failed, and then who failed on their promise to rectify the first failure.  We shouldn’t have been on the critical path and it was all because I was pushing for an ‘optimistic’ deadline to close a big deal.  I thought I had controlled all aspects of chance, and the supplier even admits that the particular failure has never happened before.

I know it will never happen again, we terminated the contract with the supplier and found someone else, but in future, regardless of how tempting is the deal, I will ensure I correctly apply some perception management.

And to my lead operator on deployment: if you’re reading this – I’m not sorry 😉

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