I stumbled over this question at SO

Academic Studies About Costs of Memory Leaks [on hold]

(It's off-topic at SO of course, but the discussion in comments evolved interesting)
that basically asks how to overcome wrong decisions for allowing to fix major problems in a software project, because of incompetence and how to prove the boss' decision was wrong.

I've mentioned to not go ahead throwing the incompetence in the boss' face about that decision as being an inappropriate action, but rather simply not telling them, and do the necessary fixes on the fly doing your best as is expected at your job.

I'd suppose doing such fixes can be done on the fly, when hitting them, but doesn't necessarily need to dig deeper at time other problems should be solved.

Anyway, for that particular case of problem mentioned by the OP, this kind of ignorance seems to endanger the success of the project.

How should this be handled without escalation to a higher hierarchy level?

  • just not disclose what you're actually doing in your worktime?
  • try to convince your boss that fixing those things is important, and it can be done on the fly when you find it
  • escalate that your boss is overlooking important problems as diagnosed with the software to the next hierarchy level, and risk a serious confrontation (even that far you'll might loose the job)
  • Whatever else you may do, when it is a major problem (but not enough to be a legal/ethical issue), ensure you get their work order in writing so that you cannot later be setup as the fall guy when it does cause issues. – Lawtonfogle May 29 '15 at 20:36
  • @Lawtonfogle Well, you seem to have got my point. You could just quit that job, if frustration level is high enough, or try to get bearing (and possibly undermining) your task obligations. – πάντα ῥεῖ May 29 '15 at 20:41

Without escalation to a higher hierarchy level, this should be handled by: none of the above suggestions. Instead, trust your boss enough to obey him while fully documenting on your daily work log that you found the memory leak but that you were told by this specific boss that your time was better spent elsewhere. This is not done to lay blame on the boss; it is only to document that you used your time productively.

We can look at this from another perspective to come to the same conclusion. Say that you find someone has spilled a drink on the floor and you immediately start to clean it up, but the boss stops you and tells you he needs you at your desk filling out reports. In your mind, the spilled drink is a slip hazard that can result in liability to the company. You feel it is important to clean up immediately, but the boss tells you to leave it for the janitor. You happen to know the janitor quit and the spill won't be cleaned up for weeks because HR will take that long to hire a new one. Do you wait for the boss to leave and then clean up the spill yourself? Do you obey the boss and leave the spill for some future janitor? Unbeknownst to you, the boss may be using these unsanitary conditions as leverage to get his department more funding so he can afford more reliable janitor service. It may seem like your boss is incompetent or intentionally endangering the team, but he may be playing some kind of politics designed to get your team a raise.

The boss is not hiding the fact he told the OP (of the other question) to do something else. He didn't tell the OP to keep it a secret. There is no indication of a nefarious plot. If it seemed like some kind of insider industrial sabotage then company policy for dealing with such should be followed to the letter. In the absence of policy, keep in mind that whistle blowers get the blame. "He who smelt it dealt it." It's not about what you know; it's what you can prove. If you were in such a situation, everyone you might go to might be part of the conspiracy to sabotage the company in order to artificially lower the stock price for insider trading purposes. So the best course of action is still to do as you're told, document your observations, and presume the boss knows better than you and it's all above board. The game theory prisoner's dilemma is too naive of confounding factors. What if you're both innocent?

Of course if as someone in this situation you really believe the boss has made a mistake, it is important to communicate this to the boss in a professional manner. You say, boss, I understand that you want to keep me working on the most important tasks, and I believe you are under-estimating the importance of preventing these memory leaks. And then provide some reasons. Perhaps uptime is not important to the boss and he feels that computers should be reboot twice a day as a matter of course. It's a difference of opinion, not a matter of incompetence. The boss gets his way because he is the boss, but maybe he will change his mind later. Speaking to the OP of the other question: It is important to keep your job so you can see this future change.

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Build consensus.

If it's just you that feels a decision is wrong, then it's probably not a fight worth fighting as you're going to lose. On the other hand, if your entire team feels the same way, then start with trying to convince your immediate superiors. If they're still not convinced, then take a step back.

However right you are, remember that you have only a certain number of "appeals" to senior management before you and your team get tagged with the "whingers" tag. Is this one of those issues you're prepared to put your reputation on the line for? If so, then go ahead and involve senior management. If not, suck up the pain for a while, build evidence and then start again with trying to convince direct management.

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  • Hmmm, your suggestions look clumsy for me. But that might be biased, because I'm one of the senior management and have to deal with probable escalations. – πάντα ῥεῖ May 29 '15 at 20:47
  • 2
    In which case it's your job to make clear to your staff that they would never be at risk of losing their job for bringing a legitimate concern to your door. – Philip Kendall May 29 '15 at 20:50

There are a few slighly different things that might be going on here:

My boss has made a decision which I think is incorrect.

Tough luck: do what the boss says. Depending on how big a decision this is, make sure you've got it in writing that a) the boss said to do it, b) you disagreed but deferred to their authority. Your approach should be proportionate to the scale of risk - if it's a big decision it might be worth spending some time preparing your case or asking questions to make sure you understand what you're expected to do. Think around the problem - you might reformulate the problem above as 'When do we fix memory leaks - as soon as we find them or as late as possible, e.g. when the customer finds them?'. Other questions may arise from the decision like 'Do we document suspected leaks until we get round to fixing them? Where?'; 'How big a leak is big enough that the product is no longer viable?'.

My boss frequently takes a particular approach which I think is incorrect.

Consider: Can you measure it? If it's an issue of tail risk, probably not, but if your boss is consistently overruling your team's estimates, maybe it is. If it's safe to do so, accept the decision, but suggest measuring the outcomes. Importantly, set 'success parameters' beforehand rather than just retrospectively looking at the results and saying 'they look ok'.

Escalate: Talk to your boss' boss (in a traditional workplace structure) about how to handle the issue. Don't ask for them to overrule your boss (though they may decide to do that), leave it open for them to say your boss is right. Get a feel for what the rest of the team things before doing this. If there is an ethical component, your company may have procedures for whistleblowing - follow those.

My boss has made a decision which I think is is not only incorrect but outrageous

If a single decision, taken on its own (i.e. not as a reflection of your perception of the underlying approach) has a non-negligible probability of causing serious problems for the company, the customer, or some other interested party, then escalate as above. Examples here might include storing passwords in plain text.

I think the key question is really: How serious/minor would this problem need to be for me to decide escalation is necessary/unnecessary.

Remember that every decision comes with risks and the boss' job is likely in part to pick which risks to pay most attention to mitigating and when. Your job is to make sure they're in possession of all the information you are either asked to or are uniquely capable of producing. Some projects will start with a 50% chance of failure from the outset but with a 25% risk of being wildly successful, so from that starting point any decision will have risks of project failure - assuming these were known in advance that the boss has been put in charge to manage those risks, nobody will thank you for panicking.

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Short answer: You need to do what you are asked and NOT what you think you should be doing, or you should probably find another job.

Your boss is currently scheduling based on the tasks that he or she knows about. By your charging off and doing something that is not on that schedule, you are actually placing the project at risk.

Before you jump up and down, please hear me out :)

Have you raised with your manager that you feel that by not fixing this issues that there is a risk? If the answer is yes, and it's documented, your butt is covered. But if you go off and do your own thing and the project fails, the blame will fall directly to you, and rightly so, because you are not doing what you are supposed to do.

Now the obvious question is, if you feel strongly that the decision is wrong, why won't you escalate it beyond your manager as a risk to the project? If you don't wish to take that path, then you need to just do the tasks you are assigned, or you need to leave.

A project is not anarchy. Your manager needs to know what you are doing - what you are actually doing. If there are issues, then they can be addressed if they are raised. By "hiding" the problem, you are in fact adding to it.

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