Lead through sacrifice. Throw yourself under the bus

It’s amazing how quickly things can go to hell.

It all started at the project kick off on Monday, the team was discussing the project scope, governance and the sponsor started to comment on the goals.

“We’re here to consolidate the teams, boost productivity and ultimately, make it easier for employees to better serve our customers.”

OK. No worries! Sounds like a good idea!

Yet there was a scratching thought. What exactly does that mean?

I parked that thought, it should all become clear when the team digs into the project.

The project progressed, we became more comfortable and started making progress….or so it seemed.

The weekly meeting rolled around, yet it was as if we were all in separate meetings. No-one was clear on what exactly was required, the high level goals were fine but they lacked the clarity for the next level of direction.

Our path suddenly became terribly hazy, the team became tense, the project stalled in the detail and we’d lost sight of what actually needed to get done.

Ring any bells?


We appealed to the higher level goals which helped us along the path but they were still too fuzzy to provide us the clarity we needed.

Then the realisation hit.

We were stuck because we didn’t know what was actually required and no-one wanted to admit that.

It’s extremely hard to accept, let alone admit, that you don’t know how to do your job as you will feel stupid and question your own credibility.

Nevertheless, we had to get answers and deliver. But how?

We needed a martyr, someone who would throw themselves under the bus for the good of the team.


One item holding us back was the uncertainty and differing opinions on the priorities of which teams were to be migrated in the first release.

That’s when it was thrown out there:

“Sophia, am I correct in saying the Internal Field Support team will be migrated in the next release?”

This was met with a blank face and a look of surprise.

“What?! No, they are to be migrated in the second release.”


There it was! The tip of the clarity iceberg.

From there the digging continued and we walked out with a clear understanding of the next steps.

We were back!


That one simple, seemingly stupid question started the chain reaction to remove the uncertainty.

On reflection though it wasn’t just a simple question at all, it was a purposeful sacrifice to achieve clarity.

Was it admitting we didn’t know something we should have? Yes!

Did the question seem stupid? Yes!

Did Sophia think the answer was obvious? Yes!

Yet, did it force clarity and allow the team to progress? YES!!


Ambiguity and uncertainty is all to common and the gap between a vision and the implementation is usually gaping.

Here’s how we got there and ways to force clarity where none exists.

Sacrifice yourself

Step up and be the leader, throw yourself under the bus and get the answers.

Push your ego aside and accept the temporary hit to your confidence, its more than repaid with the clarity that ensues.

It’s worth checking out Simon Sinek’s long but great talk on this – Why Leaders Eat Last

Force the issue by stating a fallacy

By doing so you’re either forcing people to correct you or agreed with you.

You need a straight answer – a yes or no – so ask a closed, painfully clear question.

Be direct and do NOT soften it. Instead of “…so I guess that means we may be migrating company X next week. Yeah?” try asking “… Will Company X be migrated next week?”

Direct it at an individual

Don’t let it get lost or ignored, it must be clear who needs to respond.

Do NOT mislead – State a fallacy NOT a lie

You’re after clear direction so don’t pollute it any further.

Remember its for the team, do not be malicious or push your own agenda.

It is risky, you will feel stupid yet by sacrificing yourself you’ll get the clarity you need.

The temporary hit is more than paid back by the direction that is provided to the team.


Want Progress? Do Something! Anything!

When I originally started my career I didn’t know what I wanted to be nor in which direction I wanted to go.

All I knew was that I was fairly ambitious, wanted to grow and felt like I could do anything.

Sound familiar?

No amount of career path discussions helped, it did give me an understanding of options but I didn’t know which path I wanted to follow.

This was simply because I hadn’t had any experience to help me understand what I liked, disliked and to guide my direction.

After finishing my degree, I started out as a software developer and was quite happy in my job. For about a year I didn’t make much progress because I didn’t know what I wanted. Rather I focused on doing the job at hand without much consideration for the future.

These seemed reasonably logical, focus on doing my job well and opportunities will come.

At the time, I didn’t appreciate that it was up to me to make these opportunities and go grab them.

I pushed to become more involved in back end development, which was awesome yet wasn’t quite what I was after.

After speaking to the design team I turned my focus to front end development, which was quite enjoyable, but still not right for me.

However, I didn’t feel like I was progressing. Rather, I felt like my time had been wasted as I wasn’t fully satisfied in any of my roles.

Shortly afterwards, I turned to consulting, as I felt I wanted to be on the front line with customers.

Initially this was terrifying. There was immense pressure, you occasionally got yelled at and sometimes the requests just seemed to defy logic.

As I gained experience I started to relish the challenge of delivering the best solution and driving the outcome.

I’d started to find my niche.

Even though initially I had no idea of where I wanted to go taking action was resulting in progress and personal satisfaction.

If I hadn’t taken action I would not have made progress.

I now felt silly at the frustration I felt with my false starts and now realised they were necessary to help me refine my path, correct my actions and drive me forward.

If you feel like you aren’t progressing, regardless of where you are in you career, you must do something, anything to progress. Sitting around feeling sorry for yourself is not going to move you forward and if you are stuck remember the below points

Success comes from failure

When you try something new you’ll quickly discover if it’s for you or not. If you enjoy it, that’s wonderful. If you don’t enjoy it, at least you have gained clarity.  You now know you went in the wrong direction and can correct back on track.

Front end development wasn’t for me and caused me to head in another direction, moving towards being on the front line with customers.

You must create and take your opportunities

By taking action things start to shift, conversations happen and opportunities arise. When they do arise it’s unlikely they will just land in your lap, you need to stretch out and grab them.

Do not expect someone to ask you if you want an opportunity, people are too busy, go and create it yourself.

You must dust yourself off and keep going

It’s rare that you will find what you want in your first attempt. Constantly probing different paths will cause you to refine and discover what you want and need to do to get there.

This can become tiring, demotivating and cause you to question if it’s worth it, however you need to dust yourself off and keep going.

What would have happened if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs gave up? What will happen if Elon Musk gives up?

Do not be afraid to pick the hard path, it is how you will reap the most rewards.

There is no end

You will never end up in the perfect role. Which seems quite demotivating but when you find something you love you’ll be enjoying is so much that you’ll want to dig deeper and find out more.

You’ll become more confident and focused which feeds upon itself to continually progress you.


If you are not where you want to be you need to take action immediately.

Do not be concerned if it’s the correct move or not, the important thing is to get out there and do something.

Through this you’ll refine your path and start to make progress.


Want to be better? The answer is simple

Does this sound familiar?

You’ve been called in as the expert to solve a problem.

You know your stuff and have built quite a comfortable life out of it.

This problem though is particularly challenging, you’re confident you can help but there’s a niggling doubt that’s causing you to hesitate.

You push past it and offer your solution.

It’s good, you’re happy with it, but it does have hidden flaws.

It goes ahead and its mostly successful, people are very happy but nonetheless it could have been better.

I’ve been hit with that scenario a few times in my life, in projects, in jobs and even in my personal life. The pressure is on and you’ve got to deliver, you do and it’s good but there is room for improvement.

One of these times was at a large government client where I was responsible for the overall project implementation of our IT management software.

This client was extremely risk averse and needed strong mitigation plans for all the identified risks. I suggested methods for mitigating, reducing and even avoiding these risks that were fairly sound. The project was a huge success however I was curious if my suggestions were the best they could have been.

What hidden opportunities had I missed? Were my suggestions the most efficient?

I certainly thought so.

My curiosity meant that these questions continued to itch in my mind and I needed the answers.

I started to realise that my problem was that I thought I had to know all the answers even though I knew I didn’t have them. It felt as though it was all on my shoulders and if I didn’t know the answer I’d have to step up, ultimately, by myself.

I thought I was alone.

As I was the expert, naturally I could only rely on my skills, experience and judgement. This meant that regardless of my role I could only grow at the rate it took me to gain additional knowledge or experience. Which is time-bound and extremely limiting.

Since then I’ve learnt that I’m not alone and there is a massive support network out there, both professional and personal. Nearly everyone is willing to help and it is only through listening and gaining insight from others that you can break this barrier.

There are two primary ways I’ve found to help you grow and gain insight.

Grow your network

This is simply attending events, functions or catch ups to meet new people.

I’ve now formed a habit of attending a fortnightly tech startup catchup where I have learnt a massive amount. By asking what others would have done in my situation, BOOM! The nuggets started to flow.

I’d highly recommend heading over to meetup.com, searching for the topic you’re interested in and heading to the events.

Mine your current network

This is the surprisingly valuable and is through your current contacts, colleagues and associates. It’s limited to the people you know but it’s extremely simple, just go grab a coffee with someone.

I did exactly that with one of the sales guys where I learnt the criticality of taking customers on a journey and focusing not on the value, product nor solution but rather where they will be in five years and the buy-in that comes with it. That tip was so simple yet completely amazed me.

With these methods I now accept that I don’t have to have all the answers and it’s quite simple to gain further insight.

Never underestimate the power of connecting and listening to others.

The knowledge and relationships you will gain will help you grow exponentially better.


How I regained control in the most nerve-wracking time of my life

It all started at 3am on Saturday when I was woken by my wife who had started to feel strong, recurring abdominal pain.

Fortunately she was pregnant, so it wasn’t too alarming.

The pains became more frequent and at 7am we headed to the hospital where we were checked in and ready to roll by 8am.

After some tense and exciting hours our second daughter, Eliana, was born.

She was healthy, my wife was overjoyed and I was ecstatic.

Eliana eventually relaxed and I started to reflect on what had just happened. It was truly awesome and my thoughts naturally moved to the birth of our first daughter, Sophia.

At least this time I had half a clue of what was coming, a complete contrast to when we had Sophia.

I remembered having no idea what to do, how to comfort her nor what to do next.

Why is she crying? Is something wrong?! What do I do?!

It was scary, I thought I’d have the answers but I didn’t.

I looked out the window on our wonderful view of a dumpster when it dawned on me that I was a parent and had to to take control.

It was up to me to sort this and I needed a plan! Everything is better with a plan!

I got cracking, talking to the midwives, doctors and exercising my Google-fu.

Shortly after, I had a page full of notes, times and techniques to get us through.

It certainly wasn’t perfect, it could all change in an instant but it was an enormous comfort.

The plan gave me control, I now knew what to expect and what to do.

Even if it fell apart I still had an anchor point to steer back to.

If you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t see a way out, get a plan, even if its extremely loose it will bring a sense of control.


How I Under Promised, Over Delivered and Screwed Myself

“We need to under promise and over deliver.”

I didn’t realise how much pain would come from that one little statement.

Significant effort had gone into winning this contract so we were super keen to get going.

It started with an internal meeting that focused on the expectations set and how we were going to now deliver.

That’s when it happened. I blurted those horrible words out.

“We need to under promise and over deliver.”

Perfect! By giving the client more than they expect, we guarantee success! Right?!

Reflecting on this, I wonder what was wrong with me.
How did I not see what would happen?!

A week later we had the kick off. It was fairly standard with the client asking if we could deliver ahead of schedule. Ensuring I set realistic expectations I suggested we deliver as planned.

The project moved along and thanks to some long days we actually managed to deliver functionality ahead of schedule.
At this point I was very pleased with myself, we were under promising and over delivering!
Just like planned, the client is going to be overjoyed!

We continued our iterations, tuning functionality and consistently over delivering when the team started to become disgruntled and exhausted.

To continue to over deliver, the team had been working very long hours, weekends and some had missed important family appointments.

The over delivery had taken its toll. It was not sustainable and I was convinced that the next deliverables would be done in a more realistic manner.

The next day we presented to the client, they were surprised at what we’d achieve in such a short time and were happy that we were ahead of schedule.
The discussion turned to the next set of deliverables, the effort and the expected delivery dates.

This is where it all started to fall apart.

Regardless of the time we said it would take, the client kept demanding it to be shorter.
To hit their new dates we would have to continue to work double and sometimes triple time.

I pushed back, the team couldn’t be under this amount of pressure again.
Regardless of highlighting the teams overtime efforts, the client would not accept fewer deliverables.

We had some verbal, professional jousting with it ending when the client stated:

“Why can’t you do it? We’re not asking for anything more, it’s actually less than what you delivered before.”

The wheels were coming off..

My grand plan to under promise and over deliver had led to a disaster!
The delivery team was exhausted, the client was annoyed and I was screwed.

It was time to stop and breathe, anxiety was quickly building and sinking into misery was not going to fix this.
I had to rectify this, but how?! I felt buried with no way out.

That’s when it hit me. By consistently over delivering I had actually set the expectation that it will become the norm and it was only through stressful days, long nights and large amounts of caffeine that it could be maintained. That was not sustainable.

Over the next few meetings, with significant effort, the discussions started to turn around. I had been reborn and now realised:

It’s not about the effort, it’s about the outcome
The client did not care how much effort we’d put in. My attempts to highlight this were pointless. Do I care how long it takes a mechanic to fix my car? No, I just care that its fixed. By focusing on the outcome we regained traction.

We needed to become a partner
It’s quite likely that the client is under a massive amount of internal pressure to deliver this project. By recognising this, the discussion turned around, it was no longer about what the team was delivering it now focused on how we were progressing towards their business goals.

The expectations had to be reset
Building a happy client cannot be done through incorrect expectations. Over delivering set the expectation that we’d continue to deliver massive amounts of work however this was causing the team to burn out. This had to be rectified to reflect the reality of consistent delivery.

As painful as this was, it did teach me a lot.
Get on top of this before it blows out.

Under promising and over delivering is for suckers.



Call yourself a leader? Where’s the clarity?

During your career its likely you will encounter periods of massive uncertainty where everything gets turned upside down and there is no clear path to clarity. This may be through an acquisition, retrenchments en masse, a lack of company direction or even having a new-born!

Being in the position where you have to deal with uncertainty means something has gone wrong. In a perfect world this shouldn’t happen but unfortunately life is far from perfect and clarity isn’t always possible.

This is when leaders really need to step up and grab the bull by the horns.

It is the responsibility of leaders to provide clarity and ensure it persists. If you see yourself as a leader, ask yourself if you are doing this. If not, you may need to revisit your perspective on leadership.

Do not fall into the trap that execs and managers are necessarily leaders, leaders are significantly more rare and anyone who helps provides clarity is a leader.

If your business is experiencing periods of uncertainty the below techniques can help leaders shine through the fog of uncertainty and get you to a point of clarity.


  • People want to buy in; listen to their input and take it into account.
  • This cannot be lip service, like a suggestion box at a restaurant. If you are not open to changing your plans, do not bother listening.
  • Listen not only to what is being said but also for the underlying concerns.
    • As a simple example, if someone is asking about why a fellow employee was let go its implicit that they want to understand if their job is secure.
  • You may need to dig deep to get to the real thoughts so be prepared to probe.

Clear communication

  • Be explicit. Clarity cannot exist if everyone understands what is happening and why.
  • The difficult questions are the ones people are most interested in, hence they most important. Do not neglect them, tackle them head on.
  • Be careful not to over communicate, its annoying and will cause people to switch off.

Be Consistent

  • People will look to you to understand how to act, respond and check if your actions match your words.
  • If there is any inconsistency you will lose credibility, traction and hence the clarity you were trying to bring.

Going out of your way, be informal

  • Its ironic however employees often think that the higher ups live in ivory towers that can not be approached.
  • Having informal chats with people, with your guards down, can make people feel closer and more relaxed.
  • Simple gestures such as offering to grab a coffee can go a long way.

Providing direction and clarity is extremely difficult and is really the ultimate test of a leader. Do whatever you can to provide it.

Clarity is truly a strange beast, its invisible when it exists but glaringly obvious when it’s absent.

It’s time to step up.


The Importance of Clarity

If there was one aspect that is critical to all facets of life, it has to be clarity.

Think of all the times you’ve been to the shop after a simple item, such as milk, only to be confronted with low-fat, no-fat, high-calcium, lactose-free (just like the ad), to pick one, hope its correct and then having to do the walk of shame back into the store as you’ve selected the wrong one.

Or that project that seemed to be going fine, then all of a sudden blew up and it was a nightmare to fix.

Clarity is an amazing thing that brings simplicity, better outcomes and makes life significantly easier.

Without clarity there is a jumble of confusion, frustration, helplessness and if not corrected, failure. Without it, there is little point continuing.

You will simply burn time, money and your reserves for dealing with stress.

Be careful to recognise that this is not bidirectional. Confusion and frustration do not necessarily mean the cause is a lack of clarity. This is often stated and it is much easier than actually spending time to diagnose the real problem.

If there is no strategic insight, long term plans nor goals for the future it is likely due to a lack of clarity, but if any of those exist you need to investigate further.

My eyes were opened to the massive importance of clarity after attending a training session with Greg McKeown, an amazing individual and a writer for the HBR.

One of Greg’s more popular articles, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, has quickly become a modern classic, focusing on clarity and the distractions from it.

I strongly suggest following Greg both on Twitter and LinkedIn, he is a very insightful individual.

Unfortunately unclear situations arise too often but there are techniques to tackle it


  • It seems obvious but its amazing how many people don’t do this.
  • Do not assume that the higher-ups hold the tablets of wisdom. They will however have some of the answers.
  • Asking the question shows your concern and highlights the stake you have in the company’s future.
  • In times of uncertainty most leaders will understand your concerns and be willing to spend time to answer questions. Do not take this for granted rather plan your questions in advance and pick a time that suits them.
    • e.g. Friday at 4pm is usually a bad idea
  • You may not like the answers but it will leave you in a more informed position than before.


  • In the absence of a plan, make one.
  • A lack of clarity makes you feel very insecure and helpless. A quick and easy way to regain control is to map out the possible alternative futures, what may occur and your corresponding action plans.
  • Drawing a decision tree is a simple way to do this with each branch spurring other possibilities until you can progress no further. You can find out more info here. You don’t need to follow all the details, just think through the outcomes, options and actions.
  • This is extremely powerful as it instantly gives you control.


  • Leaders will often put up time frames on when to expect further clarity, which is particularly common during acquisitions.
  • Monitor the progress towards clarity as these dates approach, if they do not become clearer or keep sliding back, revisit your plan.


  • As a last resort or in certain uncontrollably circumstances (e.g. macro economic) it may be best to accept the uncertainty. This can bring a feeling of Zen but it rarely progresses you so do be careful.

Clarity is extremely important and the above can help you move through it when it is forced upon you. My next post will flip this around, talking about how leaders can build and maintain clarity so to avoid this problem before it arises.


Managing Expectations..Like a Boss!

The previous post, Save The Surprises For Your Loved Ones, detailed why surprises are bad for clients and the nasty situations that can arise when expectations are not managed appropriately.

Of course it would be best to avoid those situations altogether and doing so is actually quite simple.

The key is to step up, take action and invest the effort into consciously setting the expectations.

Clients who are misaligned will quickly become angry, the trust and credibility you’ve worked so hard to build will disappear. Coming back from this is extremely difficult as it requires rebuilding the relationship and can only be done over extended periods of times.

Investing significant amounts of effort here will pay off enormously!

Remember the client is not to blame here, you should be controlling the expectations.

You cannot spend too much effort ensuring everyone is aligned and there is a common understanding.

The below can help here

Be upfront

  • Put a lot of effort into kicking off the project. The initial project meeting lays the foundations for the project moving forward and is an excellent time to clarify and align expectations.
  • Ensuring the client understands the delivery methodology, what will be the outcome and what they need to do.
  • This is also the time to clarify and correct any assumptions that have been made, both from your side and the clients.
  • A great way to do this is to highlight what is not in scope. When you explicitly state something is out of scope you will be called out if its important, avoiding the problem before it arises.

Force the difficult conversations

  • Don’t let misunderstandings fester, hunt them down with vengeance.
  • This will lead to difficult conversations, there is no way to avoid this, however the magnitude is proportional to when you raise them. If you jump on the misunderstandings quickly it is much easier to control.

Control your response

  • It sounds fundamental, but do not lose your temper or be crass. There will be situations where you will be yelled at, belittled and threatened with legal action, the initial response will be to fight back with your own version of abuse.
  • Do not do this in any case. It is a very serious career limiting move.
  • The most powerful response is calm, collected and patient. If you do not have all the answers do not commit until you do.
  • This is also good to remember when dealing with toddlers

As an example, in a previous life we had a 6 month project to deploy and integrate a client’s systems to our product, or so we thought….

The team went to the kick off, eager to get started and work through the details.

When discussing the timeline the client stopped us

“Why are you saying 6 months? We agreed to 3 months!”

There was silence. There was no way we could deliver 6 months of work in 3 months.

It turns out that during the sales cycle, a date for go-live had been mentioned that was 6 months out.

The sale then stalled for 3 months.

The effort hadn’t changed, however the client still thought it would be implemented by the original date.

This clarification was tense and awkward, however the troops were rallied and the client agreed to rebaseline the project at 4.5 months.

They turned out to be one of our happiest clients, all because we managed the expectations…

Like a Boss!


Save The Surprises For Your Loved Ones

There was recently an incident in our office where the coffee machine was being replaced and there would be no water for two days.

This was discovered from a note on the kitchen bench on the day there was no water.

That was all the notice we received.

Why was I annoyed? Was it because I was thirsty? Could I not be bothered to go to another tap? Am I too precious about my first world problem?

Whilst all was true, my frustration stemmed from my seemingly logical expectation that I’d have access to water when I wanted it and it was a surprise that this was not the case.

Last minute surprises are a sure fire way to build unhappy clients.

If prior notice had been given this would not have been an issue, the problem was my expectations had not been managed.

Managing your clients expectations is essential to avoid these types of awkward situations. Its nothing new but its definitely one of the most important techniques for success.

Ensuring the clients expectations are aligned correctly is critical, failing to do so can lead to


  • In the best case, nasty surprises can evoke undesirable emotions and you will be the one bearing the brunt.
  • Be prepared for a tirade but remember that you caused it through your mismanagement.

Broken Trust

  • This can be temporary or permanent and is usually related to the impact of the misalignment.
  • It’s no big drama if water isn’t available for two days, but if it’s blow out in budget or timelines it can be severe.
  • Trust is very difficult to build yet can be lost in an instant and once trust is gone it is very hard to maintain the relationship.

Unstable relationship

  • Some surprises may be so extreme that the relationship cannot be rebuilt.
  • This can not only derail the project but also your career and business. I’ve heard of situations where GM’s have threatened to spread bad words throughout their network if the project/product does not hold up to the expectations that have been set.

Legal problems

  • If the damages call for it, the client may pursue legal action. Best to check your records are sound and hope you’re communications were accurate.

Save the surprises for your significant other, it is extremely important that you manage your clients expectations appropriately.

My next post will talk about how you can take the bull by the horns with techniques you can use to control the expectations.