Recently I interviewed a selection of business people for a case study. The case study was around innovation, following the conception to delivery of a new product. The guys who were charged with making the product were very proud of what they'd done, managing volatile liquids; building plant from scratch; widening their knowledge into a related but unfamiliar area - well out of their usual scope of operation. The product had been delivered to spec and on time.
The marketing people were less pleased. The production costs were well above what had been forecast and the speed of delivery was some way short of expectations. For them, the product had made it to the market - but by the skin of its teeth.
So I went back to my client: "It's a great case study," I said. "But it's not that straight upward line to success. If we're to really share what you've learned from the experience, this will need to be warts and all. People have been very honest talking to me, and my text will reflect that."
"No problem." said the client. So I produced the case study, and circulated it for sign-off. The changes began to filter back. Suddenly the issues weren't so bad; the costs were massaged and the trenchant opinions were pared down. I argued the toss where black had turned white - and the compromise was shades of grey. But in the end the agreed text was pretty anodyne.
It may have satisfied those directly involved in the project, but was far less immediately useful for those who would have benefited from knowing the perils and pitfalls of bringing something completely new to world to the market.
So what did I do? I fed back my views honestly but in a tempered logical way. And then I took the money.
I'm looking forward to writing more case studies for this client. I hope I can inch them towards greater openness. But in the end, they will make the decision on how 'honest' they are prepared to be.
I can take the horses to water - but I can't make them walk on it.