Insane Demands, Rational Responses

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Ever been asked to achieve an impossible delivery date? How about cut the budget beyond reason or commit to a specification that isn’t even on the roadmap?

Of course, you have.

When the boss makes insane demands like these, your first reaction may be to mount a mission to prove that satisfying the demand is impossible. But have you ever considered that the demand might not be so crazy after all?

A set of circumstances may exist that make the request perfectly rational. The only way to know for sure is to take the demand seriously and respond with options.

Crazy to You, Reasonable to the Boss

The demands that knock us off balance most often are those that contradict existing commitments to strategy, quality, customer satisfaction, or risk management.  The boss gives us one set of rules, then suddenly throws it all out the window with some crazy request.

For example, let’s say you’re a new product program manager, and you have just completed the prototype system testing. Out of the blue, the General Manager demands that you ship the prototype system.  “We can’t.” you think. “It’s not in its final configuration, and we still need to go through alpha and beta phases of our product development.”

Management has told you to ensure the new product development program meets its performance, reliability, and schedule commitments. This insane request to ship the prototype almost guarantees you won’t succeed. The voice in your head says, “This crazy person must be stopped.”

But, there’s something you didn’t know.

Your General Manager just met with your largest customer who told her that they are about to freeze the production process for their next-generation product. They need to evaluate your system in the next ninety days. Otherwise, your system will not get designed in, and your company is unlikely to receive any production orders from them for two or more years.

Suddenly, the demand doesn’t seem so crazy.

The Origin of Insane Demands

When the boss comes you with what initially seems to be an insane demand, it most often has something to do with an abrupt change in the assumptions that led to the existing commitments.

In our example, that abrupt change was the assumption about your largest customer’s purchase timing. Other examples might include abrupt changes to your company’s financial outlook or competitive position.

Demands to radically change the plan of record may seem insane. However, they are usually a rational response to an abrupt and unanticipated change in the business environment.

Provide Options and Trade-Offs

Since there’s likely to be a rational driver behind an insane demand, the biggest mistake you can make is to say “No.” Instead, you must present options and their associated trade-offs.

Let’s return to our example. The trade-offs for shipping the prototype system might be a delayed broader market introduction and a budget increase. After all, that less-than-fully-functional prototype system will need a lot of care and feeding. Also, you’ll need to build a replacement prototype to continue the program.

Not shipping the prototype system and sticking with the original plan also has a new trade-off given the change in your top customer’s purchase timing. Namely, market share and revenue for your new product will be lower than was initially forecasted.

In response to your boss’ request to ship the prototype system, you need to present both options.

The best response to a seemingly insane request from above is always to provide options with associated trade-offs. When presented with objective options, your boss can consider the pro and cons of each and make the best overall decision for the business.