Driving from the Back Seat

© 2001 Sharon Marsh Roberts, www.roberts-1.com

This article is for anyone who would be a leader…short of the title. So, if you’re a project manager who’s truly and fully in control of every aspect of your project, you can exit here. Or you can stay and consider what others can do to steer a project in directions you might not have considered.

Every project is filled with opportunities for leadership. Every problem, every misunderstanding, or every point of confusion is an opportunity. "Driving from the Back Seat" is an apt euphemism for those who lead without the title. We all need to get somewhere in every project. The question is where we go. The question is how many diversions are required. Whether we get there on time, unscathed is dependent on our power to forsee wrong turns and respond to them so that others agree.

In other words, to drive from the back seat, you need a driver who will listen. Most project managers are painfully aware that they are not omniscient. A good project manager wishes to get to the right place and knows when he or she needs assistance. A good project manager knows when to listen to others.

So, do you have a project with an aware, open project manager? Or do you face someone who lives within his or her own preconceptions? If the latter is true, save your breath. If you’re in the back seat of a car driven by a monomaniacal tyrant, your advice won’t be heard. If you’re in the back seat with a driver who’s too scared to listen, you will be unheard as well.

Driving from the back seat of a project might well be the position of a testing manager. Determining whether the test plan is "ready for prime time", adequately addressing the requirements of the project, is an example.

We’ll contrast two scenarios throughout this article. In one we put you in the position of team leader for testing. We assume that you, the other team leads, and your project manager are colleagues with whom you’re going to go to the "pick your own" orchard across the river to the west of town. You’re assembled in your company’s parking lot, ready to go.

In the next, we assume that in your position as testing manager, you’ve discovered a gap in the test plan. Reviewing the stated requirements, you see a gap between the requirements and the test plan. The testing of the user interface somehow skips the issue of remote users accessing the system over the company’s intranet. Your manager and the testing team are in discussions to finalize the test plan.

We’ll discuss both situations as opportunities for backseat driving. We will assume that you’ve reviewed the warning below and have some reason to believe that you can safely make suggestions. We’ll assume there’s a chance you will be heard. We’ll assume that your project leader, Alice, wants to hear. How does a backseat driver help at a critical moment?


Projects, rather than trips, are sometimes complex ventures loaded with hidden assumptions, unknown participants, and unknown risks. Sometimes it’s best not to attempt to drive from the back seat.

Sometimes the goals of a project aren’t clear agreed upon by all the participants. If you don’t agree on the goal, it’s unlikely that your advice will be taken. In fact, it’s unlikely that your advice should be given.

Ratify Your Current Position and the Goal

Clarify that all agree on the current position and the goal. The first step in any eliciting any change is to determine where you already are and where you’re going. The first step in getting others to change is to work from the point at which you already agree.

Backseat driving requires that you first consider your advice. If you are ready, then give advice. If you are uncertain, then clarify.

In going for your trip, you ask, "We’re going to the "pick your own" farm right across the river. Right, Alice?"

We’re not always correct. If the answer from Alice is, "No," you can further define the goal, "Did you want to go to the one on the hill further west?"" You can get directions that Alice, your project manager, already has.

In discussing the test plan, you might ask, "Are we to deliver access via the intranet in the first phase of the project?"

When Alice says, "Yes, we are," you’ve ratified your assumptions. Once we agree on a goal, you can freely guide the process.

Directly Make a Suggestion

The best first step towards making the goal happen is to directly ask for what you need. "Turn right at the corner" is as direct as you can get. If you tell the project manager the answer, he or she may immediately incorporate the suggestion into the project plan.

"Here is an addition to the test plan. We need to test the application’s performance over the intranet," you interject in meeting about the test plan’s status. That places the intranet requirement in the context of testing. You’ve given a concrete document which you believe addresses the problem. While everyone may have discussed the intranet in other meetings, using the intranet not have been ever associated with testing issues.

Ask a Question

An inspired question may help a project manager make his or her own decision. Let’s assume that the direct suggestion was met with hesitation. You can follow it, either immediately or after a time, with a second comment.

"Was our destination on the hill above town?" If you ask a question that clarifies and connects other known facts, the immediate action may become certain.

"Are we making all functionality of the system available over the intranet?"

Suggest a Delay

Sometimes you can’t make the right decision immediately. You may be able to avoid an immediate mistake.

If the concern is that you not make a turn that takes you onto a long diversion, like a limited access highway, then suggest a stop. Stopping before the turn can help everyone to reconsider the decision. "Let’s pull over here, and consider our options. Alice, do you have the map or does someone else?" You’ve now prevented unnecessary mileage while we figure out how to get where we’re going.

"Alice, could you review the section I’ve just written with Donna and the other users? Could you propose changes and put this in motion?" By proposing a certain plan, you simultaneously give direction and get feedback. First, you’ve laid out your plan for solving the problem. But just as importantly, you’ve given everyone the opportunity to respond and make the plan better. You’ve not only taken action associated with leadership, you’ve also delegated some effort to the rest of the team.

Engage an Ally

Sometimes a leader needs affirmation from more than one person. So, convince someone else to voice their opinion. Allies sometimes immediately remove concern about possible obstacles and objections. Other times, the allies will bring the team through discussion of some single obstacle where there is great concern. In either case, the project manager may be more satisified than if no discussion occurred.

You ask a colleague, Donna, "Do you think we should make a right turn here, Donna?" If Donna agrees, Alice, the project manager, may rely on the strength of the majority to guide the team. If Donna talks about the traffic through town and possible alternate routes, she may add new information and enhance your route – and your team’s ultimate decision. Or she may ratify your decision just as you gave it.

"Alice, is this the testing that we need to do to ensure the intranet performance is acceptable?" Even if Alice proposes changes, you’re much closer to getting the project manager to address the intranet performance issue.

Elucidate the RIsks

Alice may not be aware of the risks of the wrong turn. State the risks in a clear but calm voice. If you sound hysterical, Alice may think you unqualified to lead. Alice may, in fact, think you incapable of thinking clearly.

"Well, if we don’t turn right, we’re going to be merged onto the Thruway and we’ll need to go for 17 miles before we can turn around."

"If we don’t test the intranet performance, we risk offending International Finance, whose total user base will be using our application through the intranet."

Discuss risks calmly. Be straightforward. If you sound overly dramatic or hysterical, your listener may think you incapable of thinking clearly. Your posture will be assumed to be one of the first lemming — leading all to their demise.

If you succeed in identifying problems, you’ll be invited to propose solutions. You’ll then be ready to give additional feedback.

Explain the Details

Alice, like any other project manager, may need to hear more detail. State what you mean.

"We need to go through town and across the bridge to get to the farm."

"We need to perform the following tests to ensure that intranet functionality works across the world during their normal work hours."

Many times, we think that what we say is obvious. Often, it isn’t. We can make it easier for others to agree by explaining even obvious details.

State Your Reasoning

Alice or any other project manager may need to hear more reasoning. State the reasoning you used to come to your conclusion.

"Well, I know that our destination is across the river. We can cross at Main Street. To get to Main Street, we’ll need to go turn northward, so we should turn right."

"International Finance will access our project any time across a 24-hour day. Specifically, we have users in Australia, Japan, India, Israel and Europe."

Don’t rush others to process your logic. State your reasoning directly, in calm voice.

Make a Forceful Statement

Subtlety may not convince. If your project manager, like Alice, is accustomed to forceful decision-makers, he or she may mistake your subtlety for lack of certainty or knowledge. Be clear, direct, possibly even loud.

"Turn right here!"

"Perform the tests I’ve proposed immediately after the application is tested locally and the application is installed for the remote users. Let’s start soon!"

Sometimes the strength in your voice will transmit certainty. Your project manager will feel a "punch." A command can be a sound that transmits power.

Give More Advice When Your First is Ignored

Sometimes Alice may rely on her own conflicting judgment. She, as the project manager, needs to learn that you’re often right. Maybe the first time, the team leader turns left instead of right. Maybe you go another mile or two before the Alice, in confusion, asks what to do.

"Turn right at the next light, and turn right again at the stop sign." Calmly state your new advice. Be a source of support and strength even when things go wrong.

"OK, let’s make our best effort to identify and correct the problems of International Finance. Let’s use the tests I proposed earlier, along with ones specifically addressing the last issue raised by the Controller in this memo."

Alice will never need to hear, "I told you back then that we were going the wrong way." By "rubbing it in", you can get a psychological lift while lowering your ability to influence. Instead, withhold the criticism and gain cooperation.

Give Appreciation

To create an environment where people are appreciated, give appreciation. You can create a more welcoming environment. Thank the driver and thank anyone else who helped along the way.

"Thanks for driving, Alice. You handled all that traffic well."

"The testing is going very well, thanks to your vision, Alice."

Be Noble

Be confident. Be noble. Be strong. Accept even grudging thanks. Don’t be unnerved if the trip is less than spectacular. Emphasize the good aspects of the team.

"Everybody, thanks for a nice pumpkin-picking trip. Let’s consider a New Year’s event."

"I think we’ve all done an excellent job. I appreciate your thanks, Alice, and I want you to know that I found it easy to work with the team because you created a good environment."


There’s much you can do to help direct a wayward project. If you feel you’re in the backseat, look for the ways you can help. Many times, the kind of leadership that helps a project is less dramatic than a Patton-like style. You don’t need to be the driver, nor do you need to be known as the font of all wisdom. You must be ready to give what you have when it’s needed. You must be ready to understand other people’s issues. Leadership is perceiving and responding appropriate. The most extraordinary leadership is doing so in adverse circumstances.

So, adverse circumstances are our opportunities. Lead by taking your opportunites. And drive safely from the back seat!

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