Project reporting: turn delivering bad news to your advantage


It is the rare project manager who never has to deliver bad news to the project sponsor or steering team. Having to explain that there’s a budget overrun, missed deadline, resource or scope issue is never going to be pleasant but as a project manager you should realize that these difficult conversations are also opportunities to win respect and even recognition for how you handle a tough situation.

There’s lots of sound advice on how to deliver bad project news and it typically comes down to being honest, stating the facts, raising risks before they become full-blown problems and having a recommendation ready. This is good counsel and I encourage you to follow it, but if you want to use the situation as a chance to demonstrate your capabilities you need a better communication strategy.

On a personal level, you need to maintain credibility as someone who can manage a situation and garner support for the next steps.On a task level, you need to make sure people actually hear and understand the problem as well as the consequences of inaction or the proposed actions.

People focus

It’s natural to want to associate yourself with wins and distance yourself from losses (notice how people talk about their football teams, it’s „we won last night“ if the team won but „they lost“ if they didn‘t), so you need to think about your own and the sponsor’s/steering team’s inclination to dissociate from the problem.

Actively fight your own desire to dissociate: we’ve been brought up to respect the captain who goes down with their ship and your credibility as a leader is at stake.Use terms like „we are facing this problem“ and „we have several options to solve this“ rather than „they caused the issue“ or „they need to fix it if...“.

You want the sponsor and steering team on your side so take action to avoid them distancing themselves.Do not surprise them with the bad news at a group meeting.Instead meet with the sponsor and/or steering team members individually before the group session.Use the one-on-one meeting to introduce the problem, describe your recommendation and get their advice on how to handle the situation.This has several benefits: people get a chance to absorb the news at their pace, emotional reactions will play out before the group meeting takes place, and they are engaged in discussing the solution (not to mention that you actually get their advice and can fine-tune your ultimate recommendation).

Task focus

Equally important is how you handle the task side. Most project managers are good at providing an overview of the problem and generating some possible solutions or mitigating steps. Where you need to stand out is in considering and communicating the implications – no sins of omission for you.

Make sure you put the problem (and recommendation) in context. Most sponsors and steering team members will have several projects on their plate along with their regular responsibilities. When you highlight a project risk or actual problem make sure you use clear and direct language to describe the issue in the context of the project’s objectives, budget, timeline and scope. Don’t count on these people to have memorized the project charter or to understand that your one-liner about a single component‘s missed delivery date means the entire delivery will be delayed. Giving them the full picture may highlight how bad the news is, but it also highlights that you are not hiding anything and have a handle on the full project.

In addition to the business impact of a problem, be sure to consider and discuss (with tact) any personal commitments the sponsor and steering team members might have made.If promises were made to the CEO, to outside investors, or even simply to peers you need to address this in your recommendation and mitigating actions.Help your sponsor and committee manage perceptions around the project.

Pulling it together

This communication strategy maintains and can even improve the credibility of the project manager delivering bad news by showing their leadership (no distancing from problem or team) and grasp of the situation (clear communication of context and implications) as well as their emotional intelligence in dealing with the steering team and sponsor. It doesn’t make the bad news less bad, but it does make it better managed.

(Originally posted on LinkedIn 5 August, 2014)

Katherine TersagoComment