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I hope this isn't too big a deal, but it's weighing heavily on my mind.

I work in a medium sized company, about 300 people in one office. Recently, a colleague (let's call her Alison) who I had never met before came to my desk to ask me how my work on Project Z was coming along. While I had heard of Project Z, I had no involvement in it, and nobody had ever asked me to do anything for it. I told Alison as much, and she referred me to an email that listed out action points for Project Z, among which were that Brian (and me) were to take over a very vaguely defined Task Z-1.

Brian is the assistant manager on my team (though not part of my direct reporting line). Also included in this email were Chloe, the manager of my team and my direct boss, and Devon, who is not my manager but assigns me the majority of my work. I was not included in this email, nor any of the meetings or chat-room discussions that preceded it, which had been taking place for some weeks before I heard anything about it.

I asked Brian what work was expected of us, and he seemed unhurried by the whole thing, but did include me in an invitation for a meeting taking place that same afternoon. In the meeting, I discovered that my team had agreed to take over a large aspect of project Z, and because of the nature of the work I was the obvious (and only) candidate to do the work. Further, the senior management present in this meeting were expecting an update on my progress. I was forced to admit that I knew nothing about the project and had no progress to report.

I don't mind taking on the work, and I appreciate the chance to get involved in more areas of the company. However, I'm quite upset that none of Brian, Chloe, and Devon (all of whom I get on well with, and think I have proven myself to with good work) thought to tell me that I had been a assigned a fairly large task, and I had to find this out while being made to look a fool in front of strangers.

Also, because I've already missed a deadline on this task, I need to prioritise it above all other work, meaning other tasks and projects I am on will suffer or be delayed.

I want to raise this communication failure as an issue with somebody, but I don't know if I should talk to Brian (to whom this issue was directly assigned, with the expectation he would delegate it to me), or Chloe (my manager and Brian's manager).

Is this something that's reasonable to be upset about? Is there some way I could have avoided the situation altogether? Should I have a private chat with Brian about it, or should I raise it directly to Chloe?

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    I disagree you have "been made to look a fool" - only your managers look like fools. Furthermore your managers should be the only people who prioritise this work above other things and manage the consequences of delays on other tasks. In the complex world of planning mistakes do sometimes happen, everyone is human. It seems to me you are massively overreacting. – Marv Mills Nov 13 '15 at 12:00
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    It seems to me that this project is not important to Chloe or Brian. Are you sure the best course of action is to prioritize it over your other work? It's possible that the deadline is one of those things no one expects you to hit. – Amy Blankenship Nov 13 '15 at 16:28
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    I need to prioritise it above all other work, meaning other tasks and projects I am on will suffer or be delayed. Don't do that unless directed by the people who assign your work. Otherwise you'll end up in a place where, instead of n projects that are progressing properly and 1 that's behind, you'll have n+1 projects that are all behind schedule. You probably don't want to be the one at fault for turning someone else's mistake into your own. – afrazier Nov 13 '15 at 18:52
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    @MarvMills - I am sad to say that, in real life, it was indeed the OP who was made to look like a fool. Senior management ain't going to care what his excuses are, and will take his boss' word over his – user13655 Nov 13 '15 at 20:56
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    re afrazier's comment. Do not unilaterally re-prioritize your existing work. Setup a meeting with your manager, review your priorities, and see how things fall out. Above all else, calm down. If this is the first time such a miscommunication has happened to you you have been lucky. – gef05 Nov 13 '15 at 21:38
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This is basically a management fail. You were not party to the email/notification trail so realistically there is no way you were able to have any knowledge of this work unless allocated to you.

I think at this stage that unless someone specifically pointed fingers at you (which you don't seem to be indicating has happened) is to now speak to your management hierarchy and start to scope and and plan the project. Just accept it as a hiccup of someone above you in the hierarchy and move forward.

If someone has made rumbling noises about your lack of progress, then you can easily point out that you are not included on the email trail, nor can anyone produce evidence that it was forwarded to you. It's not sounding like this will happen though, if I understand the dynamics of your team.

I think that if anyone is going to get in trouble for this, it's your manager and assistant manager for not allocating the tasks to you appropriately.

Now, to answer your questions:

Is this something that's reasonable to be upset about?

Yes, you should be upset. But unless someone is trying to make you responsible for it, then the best way to deal with it is to just start work on it now.

Is there some way I could have avoided the situation altogether?

No. Unless you are into mind reading, there is no way you could have avoided it.

Should I have a private chat with Brian about it, or should I raise it directly to Chloe?

A private chat seems reasonable, but I would not make it accusatory. I would simply point out that you were surprised to find out that someone had expected you to be working on this and you had no idea about it. Unless there's a good reason to be more explicit, I would suspect that your managers already know that they've dropped the ball here and will likely be more careful in future.

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    The "just start to work on it" has another advantage: It creates an opportunity to show you abilities, to show you can continue dispite someone else's mistake. Show you're a problem solver. – Martijn Nov 13 '15 at 11:19
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    @Martijn Yes, exactly. When others act unprofessionally around you, the best thing you can do is to be the professional and get in and just do it :) – Jane S Nov 13 '15 at 11:20
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    I would interpret "Start work on it" as "Talk to Choe (your boss) and Devon (effectively your current PM)". No ones actually told you that project Z is more valuable than what you're currently working on. – Nathan Cooper Nov 13 '15 at 16:39
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    Also, talk to your current managers to involve them in communicating to stakeholders of other projects you will be forced to put off now that you have a new priority. – kojiro Nov 13 '15 at 19:27
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    +1 definitely a management fail, OP is not responsible. I like it, no messing around, buckle down and get it done (Y) – Kilisi Nov 13 '15 at 21:15
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I don't agree with either of the answers currently posted. You could have handled this better (and still can) but first:

  1. Realize your management team has priorities. Assuming your company halfway knows what it's doing, the topmost management tiers delegate responsibility down. Your direct managers should know more than you about what is going on. If they don't, start looking for a new job, but let's assume for the sake of argument that they do.

Given this, you must assume that if your immediate management hasn't specifically tasked you with something for Project Z, then they currently have higher priorities--priorities delegated by their management. It is not your job to go around them by having someone outside of your chain of command tell you what to do. More to the point, it IS your job NOT to go outside of your chain of command! If the CEO asks you to stop what you're doing and shift gears, you do it. It it's some random person/manager, you don't. Period!

  1. You handled this poorly. Clearly you haven't faced this situation so don't worry about it too much, but do learn from this and don't make the same mistake again. Here is what you should have done: Reply with complete confidence that Project Z is not currently in your wheelhouse.

"Wow Alison, Project Z sounds very interesting, but as you know our team is extremely busy on other critical projects right now. It's definitely the sort of thing we'd be good at, but please coordinate with Chloe. Once I have approval from her I'd be happy to get started."

Notice what I did NOT do here:

  • Throw Chloe or anyone else on your team under the bus.
  • Admit that you didn't know anything about it.
  • Devalue yourself or anyone on your team by giving the slightest hint that Project Z might be more important than what you're working on.

What I DID do is:

  • Spare you and your team from spurious work. WIN!
  • Present the image that your team is HIGHLY valuable. WIN!
  • Keep your managers happy by letting them decide what their team does. WIN!

If you get pressed on this, e.g.:

"Well didn't you get the email about Project Z??"

You can deflect all day long:

"You know, that is a really great question for Chloe. Please speak to her about it."

Then you give Chloe a head-ups as soon as possible!

"Yo Chloe, Alison is busting my chops about this Project Z. I let her know she should talk to you so be on the lookout."

All of these things are critical skills if you're going to survive in the workplace and not get deluged by a ton of requests for work outside your immediate tasks. As soon as that starts happening you'll never get anything done and you'll be fighting fires forever.

Regarding the answer above that suggests "What you need to do now is deliver", NO NO NO NO, and NO! Doing that circumvents your chain of command. Do not work for even one minute on a project outside of your group unless your manager has asked you to do it. Doing so undermines your manager and your team. Trust me, you do NOT make yourself look good by doing this, instead you make yourself and your team look like chumps that can be taken advantage of!

Moving forward, what you need to do is act like your team and your current projects are so valuable to the company you can't possibly be interrupted. If someone outside your team even tomorrow asks you how your work on Project Z is going just deflect entirely:

"It's my understanding that Project Z hasn't currently been prioritized above the Project X I'm currently working on. I'm happy to work on Project Z as soon as I have approval."

If Chloe knows what she's doing then she kicks it back up to her boss and so on until you either get assigned to Project Z or you stay with what you're on. Either way you can rest assured you're working on what your company really wants you to be working on.

As this conversation (and ensuing fires) progress (and they will!), don't say no to anything. That's important for your own political safety, but don't say yes either (say, "I'll be happy to as soon as I'm tasked with that"). Don't admit you agreed to anything yesterday if it wasn't something you were authorized to agree to. Move forward on this premise and you'll both be fine and won't be surprised again.

And because it's totally relevant here, I will leave you with a quote from The Tao of Programming:

7.1

A novice asked the Master: "In the East, there is a great tree-structure that men call 'Corporate Headquarters'. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and accountants. It issues a multitude of memos, each saying 'Go Hence!' or 'Go Hither!' and nobody knows what is meant. Every year new names are put onto the branches, but all to no avail. How can such an unnatural entity exist?"

The Master replied: "You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational purpose. Can you not take amusement from its endless gyrations? Do you not enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why are you bothered by its uselessness?"

5

This was not your fault. You did not create this problem. Brian (and possibly Chloe) did.

What you need to do now is deliver.

Regarding the following comment on the question:

@MarvMills - I am sad to say that, in real life, it was indeed the OP who was made to look like a fool. Senior management ain't going to care what his excuses are, and will take his boss' word over his – DVK

Indeed, Brian may be telling his bosses that he told you all about it, but they know your story is different.

The way round this is, when you deliver the next update, send it by email. Apologise profusely for the limited progress so far, adding

as you know, I was unaware I was to be involved in project Z up until the meeting of (date.)

If you do this it, will make it clear that (whatever Brian may be saying behind your back to cover his ass) you really didn't know. You'd better make sure you don't have some email somewhere that shows you should have known.

Whether this is good for your relationship with Brian is something you will have to weigh up. But I wouldn't be inclined to take the rap for someone else.

Note you could say "I wasn't informed" instead of "I was unaware" but that reveals your intention of passing the buck back to Brian (bad!), rather than coming across as an apology on behalf of the team composed of you and Brian (good!).

  • 1
    Personally I don't think the questioner should apologise profusely, and also I think it comes off badly to apologise profusely for something and then add, "oh, btw, it's not my fault". If someone comes looking for an apology you might have to give them one. Otherwise you can't apologise on Brian's behalf, so (after checking with B or C that this really is top priority) send an update now with words to the effect of, "Today I have been assigned Z-1, I'm starting work on it now, I understand that it's already behind deadline, please let me know anything I can do to mitigate the impact of that". – Steve Jessop Nov 14 '15 at 13:48

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