by Mike Dailey on July 12, 2011

If you’ve worked in the IT field for any length of time you are most likely familiar with the phrase “thrown under the bus,” which can be defined as meaning “to sacrifice; to treat as a scapegoat; to betray.”  While the exact origin of the phrase is a mystery–for those of us in the information technology field the view of the undercarriage of this particular type of mass-transit vehicle is not.

Chances are you have heard the phrase used a time or two in your IT career, and may even wear the familiar tread marks on your back as a badge of honor.  For those of us in information technology consulting, however, being thrown under the bus is often an assumed part of the project.  Project managers and business executives alike often consider throwing someone under the bus as a way to help the a project (the “vehicle”) gain traction in a slippery situation.  Consultants are often thought of as expendable resources and usually the first to be considered when someone needs to place blame or cast unfavorable light away from the project team or client staff.

On a recent client engagement I was asked to fill a role vacated by another consultant.  My job was to simply carry the project forward to completion; the majority of the leg work was done by the departing consultant and the project was moving forward.  That was the background I was given on the phone.  The situation I found myself in once on site, however, was quite different.  The project was barely moving forward.  There was another consultant on site working double shifts as he tried to hold things together.  Almost all of the hardware being deployed was not configured in a manner that would meet client needs.  There was little or no documentation, and what did exist was for the most part incorrect.  There was no formal project plan being followed, and the team lacked a clear project vision and goal.  Due to these types of issues a great deal of time had been expended by the project team as they tried to resolve one project issue after another, all of which was very visible to the director of IT.  With the project delivery date closing in we attended a project status meeting a few hours after I arrived.

The project status meeting was led by the Director of IT for the client.  Her one and only question to the team was, “why?”  Several attempts were made to present reasons and justifications,  but each was skillfully redirected back to the question of why the project was in the current state.  Being a seasoned veteran, and seeing the ship sinking, the other consultant fed her the response she was looking for, throwing himself under the bus in the process.  He crafted his answers as though he should have had a better handle on the situation, even though the issues were clearly not his fault.  He was taking the blame on behalf of the consultancy hired for the project, using himself as the scapegoat, hoping that between he and I we would be able to correct the issues quickly and show immediate and positive progress to management.  Although the director accepted his answer, the looks he and I shared across the table as she voiced her dissatisfaction spoke silent volumes about the situation.  He had thrown himself under the bus for the good of the project team, knowing full well he would remain there for the duration of the project.

Experienced consultants know how to manage this type of situation so that even though they are held responsible for project failures, the directions, expectations, and demands of the client, correcting the situation brings with it de facto authority to deliver.  It becomes easier for the consultant to make decisions, influence project managers, and motivate the team to a given goal when everyone is aware that management expects the consultant to deliver, “or else.”  No one on the project team wants to be pointed to as a roadblock when the consultant is trying to meet the expectations of management, and in this situation it is often found that internal resources are more responsive and willing to help.  If a consultant is experienced enough to use this situation to his or her advantage in an appropriate and professional manner, they are able to guide the project while still “under the bus.” 

Knowing how to manage a consulting engagement while under the bus is as important as knowing how to manage it when held in favor by the client.  Every hurdle is an opportunity to do better, to improve, and to grow.  If you find yourself thrown or have thrown yourself “under the bus,” positive outcomes and lasting client relationships can be established, can be maintained, and can even be repaired, leveraging the situation into project success.

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