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What Do You Do With a Scurvy Pirate?

~ By Brad Egeland

Pirate sitting on the chest

I was watching an episode of The Backyardigans the other day with my two five year olds and the characters started singing a song about "What Do You Do with a Scurvy Pirate?" The answer was that you make them walk the plank. So I got to thinking about it…isn't scurvy just a disease that was common on pirate ships and other ships long ago? Was it a reason to walk the plank? Are they using the term on the show to mean something different…like a 'bad' pirate (as if any pirate was a good pirate by definition)? I think the song implied the later…like scurvy = treacherous, diabolical, dangerous, etc. So I looked up scurvy and it actually is caused by a vitamin C deficiency and it was prevalent on ships in the 1800s because the fruit the sailors would take with them would perish before their long voyage was over resulting in vitamin C deficiencies which often was fatal at that time. Fatalities from it are, of course, very rare now. And certainly, scurvy was never a reason to force someone to walk the plank.

So, I've established misuse of the term. Exactly what is my point? My point is this…project managers have to ask these kinds of questions. Not necessarily about pirates or scurvy, but they can't take the potential misinformation they're given from what often turns out to be less than reliable sources and run with it. They put their careers, their team's performance and their project's success very much at risk if they don't stop and ask questions. Never take information at face value. If it looks like a dog, smells like a dog and sounds like a dog it's probably a dog - even if the customer insists over and over again that it's a cat.

So how do we respond to the customer who says they know everything? How do we handle the customer who says this is my problem, here's the solution, now manage this project? Because this type of customer is not always ready to pay several thousand - or tens of thousands - of dollars for the project team to do research and verify that they know what they're talking about when they are certain they know what they're talking about and it's their money. That's a pretty hard sell.

On the few occasions when I've run into this situation and I knew I had a fairly stubborn customer who may push back hard on spending more extra money to have my team try to tell them whether they were right or wrong, I've usually ended up taking some form of the following two actions…

Draw up the project schedule to include some discovery. You may have to disguise this a bit as detailed requirements analysis and, essentially, it sort of is detailed requirements analysis. The key here is to get access to customer Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and end users and verify the business processes and desired end solution that you've been given. If shortcuts were made in what you were handed as a project, then you need to identify that now and not be held accountable in the end. Better to get blamed for needing to rework the estimate and create change orders now to get the real work done (and risk having the project cancelled) then to deliver something unusable to the project customer and risk having them not pay a final $250k bill – and get held accountable for that.

Enlist the aid of senior management. If you find out that the customer's cat really was a dog, then you may find you have to present a whole new scenario to them. And it may end up being a much larger estimate. It's not the fault of the delivery team - all you were doing was identifying the real need. Enlist the support of your senior management. After all, the problem likely started when inadequate initial requirements were put together by the customer and someone in the account management area of your organisation. The customer needs their REAL need solved - and that's what you and your team were tasked to do in the first place.


The right answer is sometimes the hard answer. Did I tell my two five year olds that the song was all wrong and that's not what you do with a scurvy pirate? Did I tell them that what you really do is give him some orange's to eat? Heck no, the song was fun and they were dancing to it…and so was I. But if they were considerably older and watching it with me, I would have explained because it would be interesting to know the right answer (which is why my 15 year old daughter got an earful on this one). In the end, accuracy is the right way to go and giving your customer the right solution to their real need is always the best way to go.


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