Successful Meetings: Know Your Boss's Opinion

This is one of the lessons I learned through observation, that actually had fair unfortunate after effects. Back when I was in charge of usability for my company, I was called into what I thought was a discovery meeting for a new usability test.  Back then we were still trying to convince people of the benefits of usability, and most of my meetings and conversations were about how it could be used and customers wanting to do it - but to do it cheaply. It turned out I was walking into a mess of confusion and conflicting opinions.  The meeting that I thought was a discovery meeting was actually a working meeting.  Not a big deal, I just shifted gears and settled in to plan the session.  It simply meant my job was easier; the requesting project team had already decided they wanted to do the sessions. The other two people in the meeting was the project manager and the representative customer from the requesting component.  Our department worked as a service department, so each project had a customer from the requesting component and was assigned a project manager; so far, very typical of our work. The customer had suggested they wanted to bring in some specific people to run through the tests, including airfare and hotel.  The project manager was adamantly against this.  The project was in the very early stages of development and - next on the agenda - was the consideration of whether we were going to do paper prototyping or an actual mock-up of the program. This is where the problem occurred: the project manager attacked the idea of bringing in people from across the country to view the project so early on.  There was definite frustration in his voice, and I knew that something deeper must have been going on. The customer responded well, and entertained the idea of using local testers.  The conversation ended up consuming the entirety of the meeting. Later, I was brought in to our director's office and the explanation was given: the director had made the suggestion to bring in the key customers.  It was part of the larger plan for the project. The problem was that the department direct and the project manager didn't have a miscommunication; they had no communication on the subject.  As a result, the project manager unknowingly mocked and put down the director's idea/plan. Note to everyone: openly putting down your boss's boss's plans... hardly ever a good idea. The problem is that it raised all sorts of issues:
  • Which is better? To fly in testers or use locals?  Either the director or the project manager had to be wrong.
  • Why wasn't there communication between the director and the project manager?
  • Was the lack of communication a bigger issue with the project?
  • Why was the project manager so stern about how bad of an idea it was to fly people in?
  • Who was in control of the project: the project manager or the director?
As such, whenver I go into a meeting on a subject for the first time I always do my best to learn what the department opinion is on the topic, or if I'm free to express my own ideas publically.  If not, and I disagree, then I'll be sure to communicate my concerns behind closed doors within my dept... but externally I always want to show that the department I'm working for presents a unified opinion. It's also important that - with many issues and conflicting opinions - the boss usually has a better grasp of what's actually involved in the decision: how promoting one agenda may take away from another project, how delicate relationships need to be handled, or what confidential info they might be aware of. Again: tearing down your boss's idea in a formal setting (particularly when the boss isn't around to explain or shut you up) is seldom the right choice.  Know your boss's opinion.  If nothing else, it might help you get a promotion.  
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