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My manager has recently been made aware of a potential business opportunity, which would yield him a significant commission if successful. This is because said business opportunity requires a very specific set of skills, which no one in the company actually has. I raised these concerns with my manager, and he explained to me that the team should "do a prototype" for a week, and then "get back to him". In other words, he wanted us to just "figure it out".

After a week, it became clear to everyone in the team that we just couldn't deliver any of the requirements, not even remotely. Without getting into details, imagine a plumbing company tasked with consulting for a spaceship design. The team raised these concerns with my manager, but he seemingly failed to understand that we can not deliver this project. He repeatedly told us we need to "familiarize ourselves more with the subject matter", but that isn't possible when a decade or more of expertise is required. Even when directly told it was not possible, the manager refuted and insinuated that we were "underestimating our own skills".

I feel like an impasse has been reached. My manager still wants to go forward with the business opportunity (and I believe this is due to it resulting in significant personal gain for him), and I am certain that if that happens, we will not be able to deliver anything of value.

My considerations so far

  • Just keeping my head low. I'm just a team member, not someone with any kind of executive power. I've raised my concerns, both in person and in writing and feel like that's as far as my "authority" reaches. The reason this is not ideal is because failure to deliver may have significant negative consequences in relations to that customer and possibly the reputation of the company as a whole. After all, if we as a company say we can do it, and then several months later it turns out we aren't even close to being able to deliver, I can't imagine that not hurting our reputation.
  • Escalating to my manager's supervisor. Another possibility I thought of was escalating the issue further up the hierarchy, and essentially making my manager's supervisor aware of the situation, our inability to deliver and the possible consequences if we agree to this. I would also have the results of our "prototyping week" as a result to show that. Of course, this would almost certainly burn bridges between me and my manager, which I would like to avoid if at all possible.
  • Abandon ship. Basically the last resort option. Polish up the CV, find a different place. I would generally like to avoid this, because aside from my manager's stubbornness with this particular issue, I like my co-workers and the company has other valuable benefits (comparatively good pay, unlimited WFH, office close to where I live, etc.).

Is there any other possibility I have overlooked? What's the best way for me to act in this situation?

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  • 5
    and I believe this is due to it resulting in significant personal gain for him...is he that dumb not to realize what would happen if this fails? Mar 1, 2023 at 14:11
  • 45
    @SouravGhosh Never underestimate the power of greed and short-sightedness, I guess.
    – Joseph
    Mar 1, 2023 at 14:23
  • 10
    Quick reminder: In most mid- sized or larger companies, you can just ask to work on something else without having to quit
    – keshlam
    Mar 1, 2023 at 14:48
  • 12
    Are these "specialist skills" technical or business-related? If your team has sufficient technical skills, but they are missing domain knowledge then say exactly this to your manager. Your manager might know someone who can be a domain expert. Your manager might be the domain expert. Your question isn't clear about exactly what kinds of skills your team is missing. Mar 1, 2023 at 18:42
  • 7
    Just as a side node: he might be setting your team up for taking the blame, after all he did tell you what to do and you didn't so project failure must be your fault...
    – PlasmaHH
    Mar 1, 2023 at 21:42

14 Answers 14

45

Just keeping my head low.

You are paid to do the job your boss assigns you to do. If you have no direct responsibility for the success of the project, just say "You're the boss!". You can even add (publicly, for all to hear): "I will do it under your responsibility."

Escalating to my manager's supervisor.

That would be one nice thing to do, in a perfect world, with perfect people. Or at least on Vulcan (Spock's planet, where people have no feelings or emotion, just rational reasoning). In our world, you can set yourself on fire with this kind of escalation.

Abandon ship.

If "keep head low" fails. And only if you can find something better. Do NOT assume that all the other companies are perfect. None of them are. We are on Earth, not on Vulcan.


As a fail-safe, write some meeting minutes with the details of your discussions. Explain in those minutes the chance of the success of the project and the reasons for that conclusion. Keep the e-mail safe, just in case. Send it to your boss and to your colleagues which were present at the discussion.

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    [I will email] my overall prediction that this project will end in complete and utter failure is almost the complete opposite of "keeping your head down".
    – SJuan76
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:25
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    @Joseph: "this project will end in complete and utter failure" - write that ONLY if you can clearly see the future (or maybe travel there and back). If not, just limit yourself to talking about the facts and information in the present.
    – virolino
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:36
  • 63
    "You are paid to do the job your boss assigns you to do. If you have no direct responsibility for the success of the project, just say "Yes, boss!"" -- Countless lives have been lost due to this attitude. Mar 1, 2023 at 17:50
  • 31
    @SJuan76 I think it's a little less extreme than that - "Per our conversation, below is the list of risks I see for the proposed project. Based on my understanding and our team's current skillset, I do not think we could achieve the result you are looking for in the timeframe allowed"
    – Blackhawk
    Mar 1, 2023 at 19:42
  • 17
    Clarification on "Keep your email safe". Print it out, laminate it, put it in a safety deposit box. Your company absolutely has access to your emails and can absolutely delete it without consent, because it is company property.
    – Nelson
    Mar 2, 2023 at 1:14
153

Some managers reply well when you give them concrete numbers, so they can put a price tag on their decisions. So instead of saying "we can't do this", tell them what you would need in order to do it, no matter how outrageous. For example:

"In order to complete the prototype, we would need to hire experts in [subject], [subject] and [subject]. Further, the whole team would need training in [skill] which would require [$$$$$] in training costs per team member and take [months] time. Manufacturing the prototype would also require certain specialized tools and facilities that would cost [$$$$$$$] to procure.

If and only if we can get all this, then I estimate that we might be able to create a prototype in no less than [x] years. And this would just be the prototype. The effort to turn it into an actual viable product would be impossible to estimate with any reliability until after we completed the prototype, but we expect the required effort to be larger by several orders of magnitude".

That way the manager can't accuse you of being lazy or unwilling to think outside of the box of your area of expertise. You show that you invested time and energy to research the problem and think about a solution. Unfortunately the solution you discovered is far outside of the time and budget your manager has available, and your research clearly shows that it would be an infeasible idea to pursue. But that's his problem, not yours.

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    Sounds good to me, especially leading with the request for assistance. A bit of research into what you know about what you don't know can help a lot here, as can requesting assistance that is reasonable given company resources. I would also add a reminder to use grounded figures wherever possible, don't use hyperbole to exagerate for impact. Express unknowns as unknowns. Mar 1, 2023 at 17:23
  • 31
    There are multiple reasons why this is the best answer that are not mentioned: It helps establish a paper trail to cover one's rear. It is positively framed around how we succeed rather than negatively framed around why we can't. It helps shift the reason for the failure on to what the manager did not do (making them the escape goat when it fails).
    – Anketam
    Mar 1, 2023 at 21:19
  • 2
    Agree with @Anketam, well put. I would even give a concrete estimate for the latter post-prototype work, no matter how approximate. They need to see X dollars and Y amount of time in print. Mar 1, 2023 at 21:35
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    When I read the question, I remembered an episode of ''Star Trek: The Next Generation''. Capt. Picard told engineer LaForge "I need you to figure out how to do this, and don't tell me it's impossible." Later LaForge comes back and says "Yes, it can be done. It will take six years and a research team of 100." This answer uses the same approach. Mar 1, 2023 at 22:49
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    @ShawnV.Wilson Actually according to memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/The_Ensigns_of_Command_(episode) it is 15 years: After the Sheliak depart, La Forge enters the bridge and says it will be scientifically possible to modify the transporters to work through the radiation, provided they are given at least fifteen years and a hundred research scientists Mar 2, 2023 at 5:36
18

You have already done it. You have told him what you think about the project. Well done.

Now, your manager does not need to think the same way that you do, and you cannot force him to agree with you. Deciding your teams' goals is your manager' s job, so let him do it even if you would do it in a different way.

So, what is left for you to do?

  • keep your head down: You already have voiced your concerns. Unless you have new information that you think could somehow open your managers' eyes, insisting on the impossibility of the project not only is useless but paints you as an obstructionist.

    Maybe your manager is, after all, a reasonable person who will with time realize that he made a mistake and assume the responsibility of the wasted time. Or maybe he will consider that he was right all the way along and that if the project failed it was because someone else did not want to do his job. If it comes to the last option, the more you disagree with him, the more likely you will be to become a scapegoat.

    Keeping your head down does not mean, in any case, just saying "yes sir" and claiming to be able to follow the instructions. Just don't become the voice of the team.

    Since you do not know how to proceed with the whole project, ask your manager for more limited, specific tasks. If he gives you some tasks that you know how to do, do them. If you do not know how to do them, tell him, but do not tell him that nobody else in the team can. Showing him the complexity of the project is better than telling him.

    If possible, keep records on writting/email just to cover your ass.

  • (be ready to) abandon ship: This is always a valid option, and one that is good to be ready for. No one can tell the future, so you should always be ready to switch jobs. Maybe the manager recovers his common sense and nothing happens. Maybe the manager is fired and nothing else happens. Maybe the manager is right, the project becomes a success, but the business closes for an unrelated issue. Maybe the business does great but they fire you anyway...

Going to your manager's manager is not a good idea. The manager has made a mistake (in your opinion), but that is something that his manager's problem. You should not try to go over him to force your POV on him, unless we are talking about something really serious (e.g. he is stealing from the company or the like). And even in those cases, going through HR instead of trying to alter the chain of command is probably the best option.

The only exception I can think would be if you are directly aware that your manager missrepresents your opinions to his managers; e.g. if he sends him an email with CC to you, explaining that "Joseph has assured me that he has enough experience with this kind of projects and there are no foreseable problems."

Your manager's manager employs your manager so he does not have to manage all of you directly. When you go directly to him, you are forcing him to do more work for something that maybe he is already aware of. And raises the doubt if you will go to your manager's manager's manager if he still does not share your opinion.

TL/DR You did what you were required, let the business sort the rest by itself.

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    I wholeheartedly concur with this answer with the small caveat that how big of a deal going up to the manager's manager is depends on the organization. Many modern organizations are exploring more of a "flat" structure. In that case, very politely voicing concerns higher up the chain may not be a huge deal. In a very rigid structure, it can be grounds for termination by itself unless you have proof of serious wrongdoing by the middle level. And in most structures it would be in between. Mar 1, 2023 at 17:28
  • 3
    "If possible, keep records on writing/email just to cover your ass." - this should be bold and possibly with a larger font. When the project inevitably fails, there will be a hunt for scapegoats. No matter how unlikely you think this to happen, desperation can bring the worst out of people. And if you want to say at the end that you've foreseen exactly these issues right at the beginning, you'd rather have solid proof that you've indeed raised all those concerns in time.
    – Val
    Mar 2, 2023 at 13:58
9

Emails are your best friend.

Keep your head down, try your hardest....

But document everything:

  • discuss in a meeting about lack of skill/experience? Follow up with an email, putting it in writing.
  • talking about deadlines? put it in an email.

Everything you should be doing is arse-covering, so that when the eventual proverbial hits the fan and fingers get pointed - you come out squeaky clean.

1
  • email? Whats email? Is it that thing in the history museum next to printers and fax machines? :-p
    – Evorlor
    Mar 2, 2023 at 17:14
9

This is a common phenomenon in the business world: a manager(ial type) will ask someone they have hierarchical power over to perform a task which said person cannot do. While the proverbial "pointy haired boss" can be seen as a tyrant of his subordinates, on the other hand, it is also very natural for the ones performing the work to say it cannot be done as a reflex. Neither is right or wrong, it's just in the nature of these roles.

The ways of solving that which are mentioned in the question ("doing nothing", "escalating" and "leaving") are of course possible, but are not the greatest ones; each of them will lead to the work not being done, and the stress levels of all involved increasing. And even if nobody is punished, nobody will benefit either.

The usual way to approach this is:

  • Make a plan. However you do that (in the classical project management / waterfall method where you clearly lay out a tree structure of all steps required to achieve the task; or more modern with agile tools - stories, tasks, loosely estimated and sorted roughly in a more or less linear time-line of "sprints", maybe with dependencies; or just a simple mind-map), make it detailed enough to prove that you actually dug deep into the topic, but not so detailed that you cannot show it to the manager in a meeting of appropriate length.
  • Try hard to isolate the really hard points/tasks in the plan. Separate them (by color or other markup) from other tasks that would be possible to do.
  • Try to find a "critical path" - a direct line of critical tasks depending on each other leading up to the goal, where none of them are buffers or optional fluff. If you do find one, great - grey out everything else and just focus on that. This saves a lot of time in discussions.

Now that you know and can demonstrate what the actual problem is, it's time to find solutions. Sometimes you know that you cannot do X right now, but you know what you need to be able to do so. This could range from "we need a new machine XYZ" or "we need to find an external consultant with skills ABC" or "we need to give the team X weeks to do an Udemy course on Z" and so on and forth. If you simply cannot find anything that would help you do a certain task, then by default, it is your manager's job to help you out. Label this task as "cannot be done by the team, and we don't know how to improve our capability; please advise" or some wording like that.

Now you can either go with that to your manager, and discuss the pain points. Your manager may now see that it is unprofitable to proceed, or may, with their presumably large network or knowledge about the company, suggest ways to solve the issues. Alternatively, you can transfer these solutions into tasks in their own right, and just add them as such to the plan. Obviously, you may or may not be able to do these new tasks either - but you should be more close to a solution, because these new tasks should be "smaller" in some sense than the tasks they lead up to; and the original tasks should now be possible (albeit depending on the new tasks). If they need to be done by someone outside of the team (e.g., by your manager or some support function in your company), jot that down as well.

In this fashion, you can drill further and further into the project, until at the end, your manager will give the "go" with the improved plan, and a clear understanding of how long it will take and what it will cost. From a rough "we cannot do it" to "we can do it if we get X money and time" is a huge step up, even if "X" is preposterously large. This way, your boss as the chance to approve a huge investment, or to realize that it's not going to work, and scrap the plan, and you never have to say "no" at any point.

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    The question said "imagine a plumbing company tasked with consulting for a spaceship design". This answer assumes the plumbing company knows how to make a plan for spaceship design. This answer assumes the plumbing company knows how to isolate the really hard points in that plan. This answer assumes the plumbing company can find the critical path. In short, this answer entirely fails to answer the question. Joe the plumber isn't going to be the next SpaceX. 4 weeks to do an Udemy course on rocketry won't change that.
    – MSalters
    Mar 3, 2023 at 8:49
  • Maybe so, @MSalters, but I let this answer stand as-is in case someone stumbles across it who feels completely helpless and overwhelmed. I know for sure that I had the feeling that tasks could be impossible until someone explained this kind of approach to me, and running into huge communication issues with upper management. The approach shown fixes the communication issue and the blame put on the "lower" person - even if the task itself is still impossible.
    – AnoE
    Mar 3, 2023 at 10:53
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Yes, there is another option you can consider, which is to make a best attempt at doing the project even if it seems impossible, and you might say "this appears extremely difficult but we will see how far we get." At times when I had assistants or a team assigned to me there were times when I had to create a dummy task to gauge either people's skill or whether they were trustworthy and able to communicate an issue to me. Sometimes there is no alternative as depending on a person's personality and background directly asking them "can you do this" will not get you an honest answer. So you create gateway tasks that give you a basic schematic of the team or people, and with that you can entrust them to work on higher level tasks or things that require NDA, etc.

Here is something that I find works extremely well for me lately in figuring out difficult technical problems or any problem for that matter - I read this in my horoscope but I do not think it makes it any less effective... What I do now when I encounter a complex problem where I do not even know where to begin, or get a feeling like I am overwhelmed and falling behind, I think of this phrase:

"Name the problem to find the solution."

Or in other words, if you can identify a specific thing that is a roadblock, not a general summation or estimate or anything, but the very specific direct statement of what the problem is, that will usually also tell you at the same time what the solution is. It is really just another way of problem solving, but very efficiently, because if you can 100% explain the precise problem you are facing then you inherently also know the precise solution to use.

So I vote to just Gung-Ho it, see how far you can get, and when you come to something you don't understand or that seems intimidating or complex, just remember to focus on the exact problem that is in your way at the moment. Failure isn't always failure if you are learning something new.

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  • Great answer. There was a day when programmers tried to solve problems.
    – Tony Ennis
    Mar 2, 2023 at 15:31
  • 1
    I agree. I'm surprised no other answers chose this direction. I've seen lots of projects that seem like they're not possible when you first see the requirements but end up being achievable in some fashion (maybe not exactly as it was first envisioned, but an acceptable variation). It will likely be hard work but you'll learn a lot in the process. As long as you've already flagged that it's outside the current skillset and is potentially a risky project, you may as well get stuck in and try your hardest to get it done.
    – rooby
    Mar 2, 2023 at 23:11
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For completeness sake here are general times when the second option Escalating to my manager's supervisor. becomes appropriate:

  • Fines or jail time if system experiences a failure
  • Injury or loss of life if system experiences a failure

A manager making a bad decision that will cost the company money is acceptable, but when a manager is making a bad decision that has ramifications that extend beyond the company, then it becomes time to consider stepping out depending on how severe the consequences are.

It is better to experience retaliation and being unjustifiably fired from your job for bypassing your manager than it is to be facing a lawsuit for your work on the failed system.

5

Following up on a very good answer by Philipp, it's not even about numbers. The manager wants this project done - so he's not interested in reasons why it cannot be done. He wants to hear what is needed to get it done.

As a manager myself, if one of my team comes to me saying he can't get a task completed, my first question is usually about what needs to change or happen to make completion possible. The same thing here. Don't try to explain why you cannot do it - explain what you need in order to actually do it. This may be hiring external resources with the specific expertise, it may be attending a specific training course, buying a very specialised tool, etc. You are part of the company - and ultimately, if the company succeeds, you succeed.

You need to put it in writing to your manager. You may even add something like, "let me know if you want me to explain these prerequisites/requirements with anyone else". This way, if the manager is non-technical but you are, you will be sparing him the need to do some translation in his mind that he's not comfortable with.

At the end of the day, if it can't be done, then it can't be done. But you need to show a good effort toward trying to get it done.

1
4

I would not advise Option 3 right now because, as you said, you like the company and maybe the issue will resolve in a few weeks. On the other hand you can just do Option 1 keeping your head low, and if at some point you feel a collapse coming you can still abandon ship.

Meanwhile just try to get the tasks, that get assigned to you...

  • done to the best of your ability
  • give constant feedback on the progress (in writing preferably)
  • try to learn as much as possible in that time.

This way the fallout you would receive, if the project fails, should be limited.

Going to your managers manager, brings little, if any, benefit and has big risks attached to it, so don't do that.

3

You should present your concerns in a professional, well-evidenced way, while respecting the decisions of the management, so far as they not ethically questionable. You should continue to do this for as long as the project continues. That should include proportional escalation to higher management.

This should be modified by cultural context, including both company culture and national culture. But remember that all successful organisations have ways to learn from people actually solving problems on the ground.

Whichever artifact you have been asked to develop, you will need to break down the work into different parts, including research on how to do new things, exploration on how to do unfamiliar things, as well as creating the artifact and testing it. This is the same activity needed to argue, from evidence, that the project should not be done.

It's true that the prototype may be suggested insincerely by your manager as a way of just getting the team working on the project. But wouldn't it be a good idea anyway? It's a way of spending a relatively small amount of time to find out important information, not just theoretically, but practically. The same thing is also true of the first month, if it's a major piece of work. The first six months, even. Summarise the current knowledge and risks in a short report. You need it either way - to try and build something, or build a cogent case for not doing so.

As a professional, you should be a doctor, not a waiter. You should present your considered, expert advice, not just indulge the customer in what they feel like at the moment. Like a doctor, your patient makes a final decision about their life or business.

Once the decision is made, unless it crosses an ethical boundary, you should go ahead and work on it with good will. As new information is learnt, it is reasonable to revisit the overall design for feasibility, and reopen discussion accordingly.

Lastly, I am going to disagree with other responses on escalation. Raising concerns to the next level of management is perfectly reasonable, so long as it is done professionally, proportionally, and with evidence. You can't be in the office of your boss's boss every week slagging your manager off and whining. But you can raise concerns, ask for extra perspectives, and offer your informed opinion on work.

The only slight caveat I would put on the last paragraph is there is some dependency on corporate and national culture. From what I have seen in an Australian and English speaking multinational context, direct escalation by talking to higher managers is fine. More than that: it's expected. As a manager, I want to know if a team is going down a time-wasting path that will be bad for the organisation. Individual contributors who trudge along with key information, that they don't share, will be less impressive. In other cultural contexts where the manager hierarchy is considered crucial, going through an intermediary may be required to get this information out. But I repeat: all successful organisations have ways to learn from people actually solving problems on the ground.

And sure, if you've done all that, and you think it's headed for disaster, maybe consider working somewhere else. But I find the idea that you'd start interviewing rather than have some problem-solving conversations a bit bizarre. It's certainly far removed from my direct experience.

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  • 1
    I like this, but I do think you need to be careful of landing your boss in it. If his pet project is derailed, the OP may find their subsequent career stymied. Mar 2, 2023 at 11:07
  • 1
    Fair. It's definitely worth thinking through how to communicate problems constructively and in more objective terms. eg - "There is a big business opportunity here, but to achieve it we need to invest in capabilities x,y,z, clearly described in this short report. Without those resources and investment it may be time wasted."
    – Adam Burke
    Mar 2, 2023 at 12:05
2

To add to all the answers regarding your best course of option, you can look for alternative ways forward: Suggest to your boss to involve a company-external subject matter expert, and you could even offer to do the search for one.

This would be a constructive (and in "classic companies" probably unusual) way forward to potentially avoid "complete and utter failure".

Furthermore, by slightly exceeding your "regular" responsibilities within the company (without getting on anyone's turf) it would strengthen your standing/reputation within the company (i.e. in salary negotiations or career advancement)

2

First, get the team behind this. One team member saying something can be dismissed. When all of you say the same thing, it gets much harder. For the rest of this answer, "you", means "you the team", not "you the poster"

Second, Philipp's answer holds. Saying something like "This will need ten years of team skill-ups, two billion dollars of equipment, and finally five years of development." is more likely to be heard than just plain "impossible".

However, assume that they ignore this and keep expecting you to do the impossible.

Then the time has come to threaten escalation. Say something like "If you keep insisting on wasting the company's time and money like this, we will have to take it to your boss."

Finally, if they still don't back down, escalate. As a team.

Now, there are lots of ways this can go bad, so you might want to keep your eye on the job market, just in case.

1

Possible option 4: See if you can get an internal transfer within the company. You don't have to mention this project as the reason, instead you are just really interested in the project team XYZ is working on and want to be involved in it, etc. If you can get that then you should be able to keep the benefits of working for that company and can maybe even switch back after this madness passes.

0

Your manager wants to obtain a boilerplate. A team of plumbers can build a good enough spacecraft (image credit) that will rise into space in a glory for testing and raw impression, even if it otherwise is not functional. More complete spacecraft will follow, likely after hiring additional engineers with right experience.

The manager only needs plumbers to build this kind of the spacecraft. Build it.

enter image description here

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  • I guess something like this is how the Diesel scandal happened. The engineers got a task that the car needs to stay under the emissions limit on the test, and this it what they managed to do. The cars don't work as well outside of the test center, but noone cared. Mar 4, 2023 at 21:45

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