June 6, 2011

The Best Policy

At Waverley, our twenty years in the business of outsourced software engineering has convinced us of one simple truth: successful professional relationships are built on honesty and clear communication. Believing that holding back key details or hiding relevant information gives you an advantage comes with the risk of a hard fall. We know from experience that honest, open communication is foundational. Stated simply: honesty is the best policy.

Unfortunately, when it comes to business, the standard practice is to “spin” information rather than tell it like it is. In many service businesses we hear this questionable standard. Here’s how it plays out in our field — custom software development. An engineer sees a bug in a new piece of software. He decides not to tell the client and instead hides or disguises the problem, knowing he can come up with a perfect fix before the glitch is found. Understandable.

The engineer’s decision may seem sensible, but it often comes back to bite him because the time he takes to fix the glitch shows up when reconciling the account at the end of the month. Then the glitch he thought he “hid” gets “uncovered” through the time spent fixing it. Now his decision not to reveal the problem when it arose becomes a new kind of problem: he didn’t get approval to put in the extra time. His gallant effort is now suspect. The client ends up asking: why did this person put in so many hours doing something I didn’t authorize?

From the engineer’s perspective, this scenario looks like this: “I found a problem, didn’t want to bother you with all the details, went ahead and fixed it. Aren’t you happy?”

And he’s surprised when the client says, “No, now I don’t trust you. How many times have you done this before? Why didn’t you use the approved process and communication path?”

Lesson: Keeping a secret from a client is a fool’s errand. While you might save a bit of hassle in the short run, in the long run what you risk is an erosion of trust.