Episode 123 – Battle the Dark Side – Delivering Bad News

How to deliver bad news to project stakeholders

I often meet people who tell me that they would be good project managers because they are good at organizing.  I agree, organization is a core competency to project management.  It’s great to be in a career where you can play to your strengths. But hold on. Before you give your 2 weeks’ notice and start a LinkedIn search for “project manager”, I encourage you to consider the dark side of project management.  Oh yes, there is a dark side of project management, and it doesn’t get much focus.  The dark side of project management consists of delivering bad news to project stakeholders – it is addressed as part of communication and not an easy superpower to master.

Darkseid an evil villain in DC Comics, had developed a plan to destroy Earth by attempting to brainwash Superman. However, Darkseid’s evil plan was stopped before Earth met its destruction.  Aided by Darksid’s army, Superman was ultimately able to defeat Darkseid and once again save the Earth from peril.

As a project manager, you may get stuck thinking that you were paid to make sure everything is always green.  Attempting to avoid the negative stigma that may come with bad news.  You may think as a project manager that you dare not say the schedule has slipped or the project is about to go over budget. On the contrary, just as Superman had to battle Darkseid, project managers must battle the reluctance to deliver bad news in difficult situations – often times with difficult people in order to save the project.

The following are some tips I have learned for delivering bad news to stakeholders on projects.

  • Realize bad news is hard. It’s okay to be nervous.  We are just humans but don’t let it get the best of you.  Be prepared for what you need to say and the best format to present it.  It will not help the situation to hide behind email.  If a conversation needs to occur gather the facts and be prepared with what news needs to be delivered.
  • Don’t delay the communication. Don’t think the situation is going to get better or that somehow it will magically correct itself.   On the contrary, waiting will mostly likely make the issue worse.  Communicating the issue as soon as it occurs gives the team an opportunity to react and make mitigation plans.  In most cases, you will find everyone is willing to help correct the issue and will offer alternative solutions.
  • Make the audience comfortable. Often difficult conversations will put people on the defensive.  Be sure to give attention to where you deliver the information including being aware of others in the room.  Speak slowly and clearly to the audience.  Be thoughtful to how the person is reacting and when they need to speak.  When the audience is comfortable they will be more willing to offer solutions and be apart of the action plan.
  • Use inclusive language. Your bad news is much more likely to be received in a constructive manner if it is not presented as an “Us vs. Them” situation.  Use words that avoid excluding others instead of us and them use “team” to show everyone is in it together.  It’s important to remember projects are delivered by teams and not individuals.
  • Make a bad news sandwich. Here is a little trick to make that bad news just a little bit easier to swallow.
    1. Start with something positive
    2. Put Bad news in the middle
    3. End with something positive (such as potential solutions)

ExampleThe team has been working hard to reduce the open items and we have been able to close 90% of the major defects.  There are 3 remaining defects that need to be resolved before going live.  The team estimates this will require approximately 2 weeks to correct and test the defects. The users have provided positive feedback and taking the extra time will improve efficiency by eliminating the manual workaround.

Developing your superpower to deliver bad news will improve not only your project management skills but also increase your project success.  I hope you use the tips provided next time you are faced with the dark side and forced to have a difficult conversation.  With practice and preparation you will learn to deliver bad news in a success manner that leads to positive action.

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