Published here February 2018


Musings Index

Conveying Bad News on Your Project

Sooner or later, on almost any project, there will come a time when the luckless project manager must report to their immediate superior some bad news about his or her project. Project managers of experience will no doubt have worked out their own particular approach, or established a sufficiently good relationship with their superior that, through regular updates, "bad news" is not a problem. However, for the newbie pm, a sudden serious or difficult situation may be cause for some heartburn.

So here is a suggested approach. Don't just barge in with the news; do a little homework first no matter how urgent the "problem" appears to be. And here we are talking about anything from a serious accident, to a disagreeable confrontation between team members, perhaps one of whom has promptly resigned, or again, an abject failure of some component of a project's deliverable.

  1. First and foremost make sure of the facts as best you can. That is, as project manager, get a grip on the situation ASAP. What is the extent of the damage and the impact on the progress and/or deliverable of the project?
  2. Discuss the situation with those closest to the action and look for a viable solution, albeit short term, and/or otherwise seek suggestions for establishing the appropriate "next steps". Better yet, is this an opportunity to make changes to improve the project's outcome?
  3. In some cases, it might be more appropriate to call an emergency meeting of your whole project team to brain-storm the issues to find a best solution. Of course, if you have delegated some of your responsibilities, it is quite possible that those responsible have already taken the obvious next steps.
  4. Try to get a quick assessment of the extent of the impact on the progress schedule and cost to your project in "ball park" figures.
  5. Now you are in a position to inform your immediate superior ASAP, if possible before informing others who will need to know, or otherwise find out. (Who, of course, might gleefully pass it along to your boss!)

Suggestions for your approach to your superior:

  1. Explain the circumstances of the event (avoid assigning responsibility for cause — after all, you are the project manager, it is your responsibility anyway).
  2. Explain the extent of damage, current and potential, to the progress and consequence to the project.
  3. Present the options for mitigation or recovery (including doing nothing if applicable).
  4. State your preferred solution, including any additional resources (e.g., people, equipment, materials, etc.) required as a result.
  5. Put a rough dollar on the cost to the project if you can — or explain why not.

Hopefully, this kind of approach will focus on the problem at hand, and head off the possibility of senior staff simply searching for someone to blame.

You can find several more useful references on this web site. For example:

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