During the course of any project, there will be times when there is bad news that needs to be delivered to sponsors, stakeholders, or customers and delivering this message is an important part of a Project Managers role. It doesn’t matter what the cause of the bad news is, what matters is that you have bad news and it must be delivered. It is not unusual for the recipient of any bad news to forget or not care about the cause of the news and to react inappropriately – to simply “Shoot the Messenger”.
Whilst it is true that the Project Manager is responsible for the success of their project, there are events that can cause delays or budget overruns that may be entirely out of anyone’s control. For example, changes in management at a client or a shift in organisational priorities can introduce delays, a new technology can take longer to deploy than planned for, or lack of skilled resources can lead to simple activities taking more time and effort than expected.
Let’s not forget that the Project Manager is also normally the Risk Manager and often has to report on project risks and issues that may in future turn into bad news, therefore the Project Manager can become someone that is easy to point the finger at and that nobody likes to see or hear from. This is not a great position to be in.
It takes discretion, skill and good judgement to effectively deliver bad news and keep your project moving forward (and your job). However there is no value running away from bad news or hoping it will somehow resolve itself, saving you from having to deliver the news. The important thing to remember is don’t try to hide it, because that will only make things worse. You need to be prepared, be quick about it, and provide solutions.
So, how do you deliver bad news to difficult stakeholders?
Stakeholders will ask “what happened?” so be prepared to answer this question.
Identify what went wrong and trace the problem back to its root cause – remember this shouldn’t be about blame. Think about who you will be speaking with and what their potential needs are. What other information will they want? What questions will they have?
By being prepared you can make sure you communicate a complete picture of the situation, how it impacts the recipient and how you can meet their expectations.
Although it might be difficult, the task of communicating bad news to stakeholders needs to take place as soon as possible. This isn’t a time to procrastinate. That can make things much worse than they already are.
It’s important that stakeholders (and team members) are aware of what’s happening and it’s up to you as the Project Manager, to ensure the right people are informed in a timely manner.
“Don’t bring me the problem, bring me the solution!”
When delivering bad news, as a Project Manager you must also be ready to offer solutions. Once you understand what happened and the root cause, you should think about possible solutions and recommendations on how to overcome the issue. Being armed with options to move forward can reinforce that you are in control of the project and are focused on resolving the issue or issues that triggered the bad news.
Remember, most stakeholders don’t really care so much who was at fault however if it is their fault, they certainly don’t want that pointed out to them. All they care about is that you’ve got a solution to get things back on track.