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"If management would only let us do it the right way."
"We could do it if we had the right tools."
"The prosecution isn't presenting their case right."


We work with organizations around the world who are struggling with how to deliver project and lead teams. Whether from executives, project managers, or stakeholders, I inevitably hear right phrases over-used. And it concerns me.

It's not an issue of whether I think there are such things as right and wrong. There are. Certainly there are bad decisions, poor motivations, and illegal actions. But often in business & in life, it's not quite that black-and-white.

My discomfort with over-using the right phrase goes back to a story related to me by a former mayor of a small suburban town near Chicago.

“If I went to a dinner party of 10 people in my first year in office, 2 people don’t like me. I don’t know why—they just don’t. By the second year in office, 4 people don’t like me. Third year, 6, and by the end of my term, 8 out of 10 people don’t like me. It was very discouraging until I finally figured it out…. The general public has the luxury of seeing things in ‘black-and-white’. For example, if they have flooding in their area they can rightly be upset that we didn’t re-work the sewer system by them. Yet when you’re in leadership, you have to see the shades of gray.”

I fundamentally believe leaders spend most of their time outside the black-and-white, having to navigate the shades of gray. After training and coaching thousands of people on leadership development & project management, one clear conclusion is that we must learn to be productive despite ambiguity.

A past issue of PM Network (Project Management Institute's magazine) featured an article by Ken Blanchard entitled "Commit to Greatness". Dr. Blanchard has been highly influential in my career development and is one of the true masters in leadership development.

Twice he refers to doing the “right things for the right reasons at the right time. You and I generally get what he's saying.

Yet telling people they must do the right things for the right reasons at the right time makes a nice sound bite but is hopelessly insufficient. He maintains "it really isn't complicated", that it's "simple." Easy to say in an article--not so easy to live in the real world.

Often right phrases over-simplify the issue.

It’s similar to typical mantra about requirements gathering with projects (another over-simplification, as if requirements are in little baskets waiting to be picked up): “Ask the right questions of the right people at the right time.” Sometimes you have to ask the same question three different ways to get to the core of a requirement. Sometimes the answer changes over time, so which is the right time? Sometimes there's enough organizational churn it's not clear who the right people are. You get the point.

Acknowledging the shades of gray helps us make responsible decisions. It forces us to think through the trade-off's. We can then better understand and manage risks and changes associated with our decisions.

Where there is black-and-white, rejoice! Enjoy the clarity. Beyond that, don't ignore it! Much trouble is generated by pretending the black-and-white is really gray! Yet beware of over-simplifying.

Whether you lead projects, teams, or entire organizations, you have no choice but to learn to become more comfortable leading despite the shades of gray. Don't be surprised when change happens. When people let you down. When customers change their mind. When rules are ambiguous.

This is life in the real world. Our job is to lead in spite of it.

What's your take? Where is it easy for you or people around you to err on the side of black-and-white instead of the shades of gray? Add a comment to join the discussion.

You are also invited to join the discussion at our Leadership in the Real World blog at

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