Urban Legends In Our Organization. Listening To Our Naysayers, Seers, and Jaded Sage

Urban Legends and The Organization

I recently started binge watching a show called Supernatural. For those of you unfamiliar with Supernatural, it’s about two brothers, following in their father’s footsteps, traveling across mid-west America, solving mysteries of the paranormal. They’re a part of a small community of “hunters” who vanquish demons, ghosts, shape-shifters and other urban legends (great show! I highly recommend it!).

While watching S01E05, an episode based on the “bloody mary” urban legend, one of the brothers makes the statement, “all urban legends are based on some version of the truth.” This got me thinking about the urban legends that exist in our organizations and prompted me to reflect on when my own organization first adopted Agile to manage our projects.

“The seed of an urban legend find fertile soil at the corner of tragedy and imagination.”

― Thomm QuackenbushWe Shadows

Bad Advice: Ignore The Nay Sayers…

About a year and a half ago, I was one of the leading change agents in our IT Operations Section. I coached and taught Agile to our Server Group, Network Group, Desktop Support Team, Service Desk Agents, Database Administrators, a GIS team, and a Software Development team. Each team had one or more people labelled by management as the “naysayers.” I was warned to ignore them and push forward. However, I felt this was the wrong approach.

Naysayer or Jaded Sage?

I say embrace the naysayers. They are the organization’s seers. They have been around the block, seen past failures and experienced a variety of initiatives from different management regimes. They’ve lived through the failures of past projects. Over the course of their careers and their tenure, they have accumulated sage like experience. Unfortunately, the naysayers have become a bit jaded and skeptical of “initiatives” they’ve seen fail in the past. One might say they’re not quite ready to start “drinking from the kool-aid.”

Some of these urban legends sound like…

  • “They’ve tried this before…”
  • “Just another management fad…”
  • “Why are they trying to reinvent the wheel…”
  • “They’re asking us to do things outside our work performance standards…”
  • “They can’t throw this in the mix, we’re busy trying to keep the lights on…”
  • “They keep shifting priorities, we can’t keep up…”

Identify Project Risks With Respect and Empathy

Seeing repeated failure is frustrating. It’s only human to become frustrated and fear failure. Sometimes it sounds like the naysayers are full of “doom and gloom” but their urban legends really only spur from a place of fearful imagination. Because of their fear, there’s a certain level of “attitude” and defensiveness we may face we when first initiate a dialog with our jaded sages, however, treating them with respect, dignity, and lots of empathy will go a long way. This attitude will quickly dissipate and they’ll open up and impart some of their wisdom and lessons learned.

Our Goal Is To Identify Project Risks Early

Our goal is to identify project risks quickly and find that grain of truth in their urban legends. Their wisdom should never fall on deaf ears. As a coach, project manager, or product owner, it’s our duty to ensure our organization doesn’t miss out on opportunities to learn from past mistakes and to identify risks as early as possible so they are not realized, or at the very least, so risks can be mitigated and managed.

As a project manager, we can add these items to our risk management plan and start a qualitative analysis with the project team. Product owners and scrum teams can conduct a retrospective focused on the risks. Some of my favorites are:

  • The Sailboat – Use this technique to identify what things are helping the project, what is slowing the project down, and what risks are ahead (I like to draw a pirate ship and jagged rocks below the water line and differentiate between known risks and possible unknown risks for prioritization).
  • The 5 Whys – Use this technique to help identify root causes of known risks and get at the root of problems.
  • SWOT Analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A classic technique usually used to form organizational strategy can easily be framed for risk identification. I like this one because “opportunities” can include good risk that we should plan for (example: We are planning an event for 200 people, however, what if 1000 people show up? This would be a good thing but jeopardize the success of the event if we don’t have a contingency plan to accommodate the extra 800 guests).

If you’d like to discuss more about managing risk and dealing with naysayers, I’d love to hear from you! Let’s connect and have a conversation.


Photo Credit: Flickr



6 thoughts on “Urban Legends In Our Organization. Listening To Our Naysayers, Seers, and Jaded Sage

  1. This is great and applicable across industries–I had this experience working in customer service where the customer would say “you’re the 10th representative I’ve dealt with” but essentially they just want to be heard–like you said. I like your methods of incorporating them into the solution; some of your most vocal jaded sages can be turned into activated advocates this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Adrienne Hill! I hope people find this useful. I plan on following up with another post about identifying the meanings behind these “urban legends” and what sort of questions to ask.


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