A quest for software excellence...

Seek to Establish a Corporate Culture of Honesty

In April of this year, an executive of another company told me in a telephone conversation, "Everybody lies. You just have to get used to it."

I was stunned by the statement and have given it a lot of thought since then. It reminded me of a scene from Babylon 5 that went something like this:

Garibaldi: Everybody lies.
Edgars: That's a very sad view of the universe, Mr. Garibaldi.
Garibaldi: Yeah, well, it's the only one I got. And it works for me.
Edgars: The truth will be revealed in a couple of days. How many people can say that?
Garibaldi: I don't know. But I think the last guy got thirty pieces of silver for the same job.

Dishonesty in this technological age has even produced its own vocabulary, specifically the verb "to blag." The third definition of "blag" in the Urban Dictionary:

To convince another person that all the stuff you just made up is in fact true and worthy. Example: "Caught in a tight spot, Harry blagged his way through the conversation and somehow got the job."

I do not wish to accept the dim view that everybody lies. And I certainly do not wish to get used to it, in any way shape or form. And yet there is growing evidence both anecdotally in my own professional career and globally that the enterprise often creates a dishonest culture. Author Brian Amble in Management Issues filed a piece in 2005 entitled Corporate Culture Encourages Lying. The author mentions "blagging" and makes these three very interesting points:

"The rot starts at the top, revealing a surprisingly ambivalent attitude amongst...bosses towards the honesty – or otherwise - of their staff."

"The vast majority of company directors and senior managers believe it is wrong for their employees to lie to them. But almost half are comfortable with those same employees telling untruths on their behalf to their customers – with female bosses even more tolerant of this sort of behavior than their male colleagues."

"[Microsoft] encourages decision-making [using a] technology-based process that creates permanent digital records and maintains the integrity of the information on which those decisions are based."

In my experience blagging is most especially prevalent in the world of software development where management clings to the notion, and consultants sell the latest process magic to reaffirm the assumption, that building software is like building a house, sufficiently predictable and repeatable so as to accurately establish a firm budget, timeline and resource commitment before ground is broken. Software artisans then find themselves in the very uncomfortable position of feeling pressured to lie to their patron bosses who clearly do not wish to know that building software is often as much an unpredictable art as it is in any way a predictable science.

Software craftsmen who boldly stand their ground and declare, "I don't know how long it will take to build that," are more often attacked and labeled malcontent and misfit, shunned by managers who insist that they can bend reality to their will while they ignore what their experts have told them. And lower management who know better are caught in the ultimate catch 22. They may believe their lead developers or software architects when they say, "we cannot deliver all these features on that date," but they cannot report that fact to their own managers or customers, so they choose to lie in order to protect and even advance their own career knowing that if the implementation team fails, they may avoid accountability by throwing the developers under the bus, asserting the implementation team is incompetent and ought to be replaced.

Given the impossible circumstances in which software craftsmen find themselves, they often resort to lying to themselves and their bosses asserting that they can produce some piece of software, despite the general lack of specific requirements and understanding of the problem domain or the target users, within the time budget and resource constraints imposed by management. And then in order to avoid being exposed as just another blagger, the software artisan (or collectively the team) works impossible hours, makes imprudent quality compromises and desperately seeks for external circumstances which can be blamed for delays. Knowing that such responsibility diverting opportunities always arise, the software artisan begins to accept and even embrace the culture of lies produced by her circumstances until she does not even recognize the truth.

I know that this scenario is not universal. There are organizations who take great steps, incorporating technology and constant vigilance, to avoid the traps of dishonesty. These organizations are led by honest people who genuinely listen to their people and avoid the trap of boxing their software craftsmen into a set of assumptions that are untenable at best and downright foolish at worst. Dr. Rhonne Sanderson said it best in an article by Marcia A. Reed-Woodard entitled Don't lie to me: dishonesty can ruin professional and personal relationships:

"Although lying provides an easy out in the short-term, it comes with serious repercussions," says Dr Rhonne Sanderson, a Dallas--Fort Worth area licensed psychotherapist. He maintains that the fallout from lying can hurt others, ruin relationships, as well as rob the liar of integrity, credibility, confidence, and self-esteem. "Lying only exacerbates the real problem."

If we let honesty govern our dealings with our fellow man, we will all be the better for it. We do not need to sacrifice civility for honesty, nor should we mistake an honest disagreement for disrespect or insubordination, for when we do, we encourage others to be dishonest through their silence.

We can boldly speak the truth and expect others to do so. We can hold ourselves and others to account. We need not settle for the notion that everybody lies. And we certainly do not need to get used to it. We can and ought to do and be better.