014-Condition RED! Breaking bad news to your stakeholders

014-Condition RED! Breaking bad news to your stakeholders

Project issues! Everyone has something go wrong on their projects at some point. As much as we dread breaking the news, how we communicate critical project problems to our stakeholders can have a greater impact on our project and long term relationships than the problems themselves.

In today’s episode we share our own horror stories about project calamities, and some lessons learned for communicating with our stakeholders and sponsors. Do it right, and you can come out the other side with an even stronger relationship. Do it wrong… and not so much.

BTW, yes, we are talking about Christmas in this episode. It’s one we’ve been looking forward to publishing for a long time!


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Show Notes

One of the tough parts of being a PM is communicating that news to the stakeholders and sponsors who have entrusted you with running their project. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. But as a professional project leader, sooner or later something is going to go wrong. You’re going to have to deliver this bad news to your stakeholders, and they aren’t going to be happy about it.

This is a really critical point in the project, and maybe your career, because how you deliver news, and how you communicate after an issue, can have a greater impact on the project and stakeholder relationships than the issue itself.  Poor communication of “small” issues can create distrust and steer your project to failure. However, “disastrous” issues, if effectively communicated and handled well, can end up actually increasing stakeholder confidence in you and your project team.

There is a research that shows that if you go through a tough time and weather it, you will come out stronger than if you had smooth sailing the whole time. While we’re not advocating sabotaging a project, there’s definitely a big silver lining in learning how to handle bad news and recover.  Plus, having just talked about RAID logs, this is the perfect follow up to be able to communicate when a risk comes to fruition.

Rules In Handling Disastrous Issue [9:30]

1. Own It. [9:37]

“You are the CEO of your project.” As the project leader, your sponsors and stakeholders are counting on you to be responsible for your project, and this is particularly true when your project encounters issues.

You can be a coach and democratic other times, but in crisis mode, you need to take charge.

2. Pay Attention. [11:00]

Before you can OWN it, you have to know about it. Active risk monitoring and management are PM 101.

Far too often, PM’s tick the box and create a risk log, which is then totally ignored in favor of spending time on tactical tasks and actions. Risk management should not be passive, but an active process that focuses not only on what can go wrong but how you will know when things are going wrong.

To keep a handle on risks and catch issues before they get out of hand, remember to mind a couple  basics:

  • Perform aggressive, formal risk identification and monitoring according to your project management methodology. Perform risk reviews often and ask, “If this goes sideways, how will we know?”
  • Keep communications open with your team and subject matter experts. Don’t let them run dark, and stay on top of any roadblocks that come up.
  • Have tight enough control over your schedule and deliverables that if a problem starts to materialize, you will notice early

3. Understand the Problem [13:47]

Now that you’ve identified the fact that there is a problem and you are taking charge, communication is everything.

To effectively structure issue investigation and communication, you must have a five-part plan:

  1. What is the problem, exactly?
  2. What is the impact?
  3. How will we resolve it now?
  4. What caused this?
  5. How will we keep it from happening again?

If you don’t have clarity on all 5 of these points when you communicate with your stakeholders, acknowledge as much, and make sure you have and communicate a solid plan for closing any gaps.

Your stakeholders expect you to know what is going on. So, tell them when you will give them an update. No matter what, follow through with your updates as committed until you have provided clarity on all 5 points.

If you can show that you have a plan, you are not only better able to manage the situation, but will also be in a better position to gain the stakeholder confidence.

On the other hand, if you lose the confidence of your stakeholders through poor communication, then it will be an uphill battle to resolve the issue and keep or regain trust.

Five Part Plan Dissected

1. Know the Problem [17:26]

Know what the exact problem is. Do not be “that guy/girl” who cries wolf and says “something is broke!”

2. Know the Impacts [18:41]

It’s not enough to know there is a problem you need to know exactly what the impact is. Who is affected? How? How long have they been affected? What will this do to the organization? If you don’t know, communicate what you are doing to  do to understand the impacts.

It is important to be *as succinct* and *as clear* as you can on what each of these answers are.

3. How are we going to resolve it now and stop the bleeding? [20:51]

This will be the next question everyone has for you.

4. Root Cause [23:24]

You will need to figure out the root cause. What if you don’t know? When you’re in the heat of it, you very likely won’t know what the issue is, and that’s ok. Know your plan, communicate it with confidence, and absolutely stay on top of it.

5. How are we going to keep this from happening again? [28:46]

We want to regain confidence not only by providing a root cause resolution, but to know we aren’t going to find ourselves back in this same situation. Ensure you are communicating your plan to get there. That’s why you have root cause resolution, you document it and PROVE that it will work.

Better yet, understand the options for remediation and prevention. Then, present these options to your stakeholders, along with their relative risks and impacts.

This shows that you have thoroughly evaluated the situation and rationally selected the best way forward. Your stakeholders may well have some additional insight. Or offer some new creative ideas to help resolve the issue. Don’t be afraid to draw on their ideas for the common good.

Fess Up [31:18]

Once you spend some time figuring out the cause, fix it and spend some time on how to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes the painful truth is that the problem is entirely your fault or your team’s fault.

Do not shy away from it or whitewash the truth. Not only is that unethical, your stakeholders will figure out your lack of honesty soon enough. You and your team will be much worse off than if you had just owned up to it in the first place.

Your stakeholders need answers from a strong, honest leader. Be factual, and measure your emotion.  Acknowledge the mistake without shirking blame. Then, walk through the 5 points with a focus on how it will be fixed NOW and prevent it in the future.

What if you don’t know? [36:55]

Then have a plan to communicate. You’re going to have to make a tough call over whether to:

  • Notify your stakeholders that you may have some kind of problem, but you don’t know the details, or
  • Spend the time investigating the problem to make sure you have all the answers. This is at the risk of leaving your stakeholders in the dark too long.

Additional Thoughts [39:18]

  • Avoid the witch hunt. Don’t guess or assume a root cause until root cause has been definitively established. Be ruthless in finding the root cause and fixing it, not finding a scapegoat.
  • Cooler heads will prevail. The uglier the situation, the more important it is for the project lead to be cool and rational.
  • Don’t Cry Wolf. While you should record all issues in your RAID log or issue reporting tool, you need to tailor your issue reporting to the audience.  If an issue doesn’t impact budget, schedule or scope, then it may not be worth raising to an executive steering committee.
  • Follow through. If you don’t have all the facts about the scope, impact, cause, and remediation of the issue when you communicate with your stakeholders, tell them when you will have an answer. Then, follow through with that. Your and your team’s credibility is at stake, along with successful resolution of the issue.
  • If you do not have answers to the 5 questions when you communicate it, then you must communicate your plan to get those answers quickly.

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    Kim Essendrup

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