One of the most memorable pieces of advice I was ever given in my project management career was from one of my instructors during my certification training where he said “as a project manager, get prepared to be beat up – a lot”. In some ways that is true, the project manager is the focal point of the project as they are accountable for the success (or lack thereof) of a project. One thing to remember about projects is that they rarely go smoothly the entire time – more than likely you, as a project manager, will need to deliver some difficult news to your customer. This post focuses on how to deliver that bad news in a way that is constructive for your project and maintain your customer’s confidence and trust.
While this should be so obvious, sometimes it can be a challenge for project managers to share the entire story. The thing that you need to remember as a project manager is that as bad as things get, at no time should you compromise your integrity by being untruthful to the customer. Be open and transparent – nothing will build up trust easier and quicker than being honest and nothing can smash that trust faster than being caught being misleading. While you may take a verbal beating by delivering the hard truth, delivering a soft lie will net you a much more difficult challenge of attempting to repair not only a damaged project but a damaged reputation, and the latter is far more difficult to fix.
Tailor Your Message for Your Audience
Depending on the severity of the bad news, you really need to put some thought as to how you deliver the message. With some clients it’s better off to just come right out with it, others you need to soften the blow a little bit. Take the current project situation into account – is this your first speedbump or is this another major miss in a long line of misses? The more dire the situation, the more care needs to go into crafting the message just right so as to get the point across but to still walk away with the confidence of the customer. Knowing the communication style of your customer is a big help here – will they appreciate a direct, straight-up answer or would it be better to subtly prepare them by foreshadowing the news? For example, if you’re having to deliver news that your schedule is going to slip by a month, perhaps start by leading into some contributing factors as to why you are behind schedule (delayed approvals, client-borne delays, etc.) before delivering the difficult news. Other clients may respond better to “here is our new schedule projection and here are the reasons why, and here is why we are not going to miss this new deadline”.
Delivering bad news is probably one of the most challenging aspects to being a project manager, and unfortunately it’s just part of the job – however the more we do it (hopefully it’s not every project) the better we get at it and the better you know and understand your customer the easier it will be to have your customer accept the bad news and work with you and your team on coming up with a solution to this shared problem.