Bad News Doesn’t Get Better With Age

Have you ever heard a child give good news? It can be almost comical. They’re really excited. They trip over words. Lots of hand motions. Smiles galore. This is the best day ever!

Conversely, have you heard them give bad news? They first try to hide it from you. They’ll try to fix it on their own. Sometimes they’ll get help from their little friends or siblings. But eventually, they have to break the bad news to mom and dad. There are a lot of “ums” and “ahs” as they stare at their feet and tell you the issue (and probably why it’s someone else’s fault). By that point, a seemingly simple problem has gotten a lot worse. It takes more effort to correct it now than it would have if they would have told you right away!

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you probably have kids, or coworkers, or both!

Anyone can give good news, but there’s an art and preparation required for giving bad news. In the area of project management, we run into issues that can take our projects off course. At some point, we need to let a broader group, be it the sponsor, stakeholders, management, part of the project team, or others, know what’s going on.

Before I give you tips on delivering bad news, there’s one major prerequisite required; relationships with those you need to talk to. Having relationship capital is needed because at this point you may need to cash in on it. If people know and trust you, these conversations are much easier than if you were almost a stranger to them. That said, here are three tips for breaking bad news.

Just do it! There’s a quote in the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball I love; “Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” I have a request of my team members; if there’s an issue, or even if you think it’s an issue, tell me. Don’t wait for it to get worse. Tell me and let’s figure it out now so we don’t lose momentum.

Same holds true for those I need to communicate with as the project leader. I tell them right away so they know we have an issue and are working to resolve it. Sometimes I’ll bring options (see 3rd tip), but at least they know what’s going on. This helps build and reinforce trust, also.

Know your audience and how bad news should be broken. I personally don’t like being surprised in a group setting, so tell me one-on-one. Also, choose your words. With some people I can say “We’re in a shitload of trouble and need your help right now!” Others need to have a little more sugar-coating sprinkled on. Know how to best communicate.

Finally, come prepared with Options if possible. Yeah, we have an issue! Now that it’s known, what are we going to do about it and who’s going to approve the direction? If I need to get sponsor or governance approval, I let the right people know what’s happening and work with my team on at least 2-3 options for resolution. Be prepared to recommend one and supporting reasons, as well as why the others may not work as well. We can bring those forward for approval. Having options shows you have thought through the issue and are prepared to resolve it.

Let me give you an example of bad news needing to be communicated. A vendor our team was adamant we use for a technology project, despite reservations by the sponsor, suddenly went out of business mid development. Work in progress halted and nothing got turned over to us. A month’s worth of code, gone. The CEO turned off his phone and the four dev folks wouldn’t answer theirs either. Silence.

I had a good relationship with the sponsor, so marched into his office and broke the news. I told him I didn’t have options yet, but we were working on it. He threw out some colorful metaphors and when I sat down with the team to develop options, the sponsor was there with us. Once we had a couple options figured out, we let the leader of the governance group know what was happening and then went to the governance meeting for approval on our preferred option. Net result was a different, more stable, vendor was selected and we lost a few weeks of time.

Bad news doesn’t get better with age. When you know there’s an issue, let your key people know right away. Know how best to communicate with stakeholders and develop options. Once an option is approved, execute and keep your project moving!

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