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Transparency – The Importance of Bad News

We’ve all been there before – compelled to deliver a message that we know our audience is not going to like. It’s a natural human tendency to want to make people happy and it’s difficult to have to be the one to deliver bad news, especially when you know that the feedback you’re going to receive is not going to be positive.

That being said, bad news is valuable to an organization. For project-mature companies, they treat it as a call-to-action. Typically on a project, when bad news is delivered, it means that there is something that needs to be done to correct the course and fix the problem. In other posts I’ve gone on at length to indicate that the cost of change is far cheaper the earlier on in a project that it’s caught, which is why it’s so important to address issues promptly when they arise.

As project managers, it is our job to ensure the viability of our projects and through open and honest communications with our stakeholders, we strive to make sure that everyone is aware of where our project is at, as well as where it’s going.

Most project stakeholders will tell you the same thing – they do not like surprises, good or bad. That is why it is so incredibly important to remain vigilant and open about risks and issues that are affecting (or could affect) your project. As problems arise, it’s up to the project manager to determine what is noteworthy to report to leadership (a missing DLL file for one of your developers is likely not something worthwhile discussing at the steering committee level). For a project that is reported in a red status, the previous report should have at least been showing a yellow status – to go from “everything’s ok” to “we are in real trouble” in the span of one reporting period will show to leadership that you as a project manager are either hiding key information, no not on top of things enough to know your project is in trouble. Once this happens, the trust that leadership has in your ability to manage your project is severely diminished.

As with most communications, knowing your audience is key to structuring and delivering the message properly. How do your stakeholders prefer to be given this information? Formally via a status report? Informally in a face-to-face meeting? Via a third party (i.e. a delivery manager)?

Bad news is not a bad thing to report. Things happen, issues will come up - it is how you plan for and respond to issues that is really viewed and measured by leadership. By demonstrating that you’re aware of the issue and have a plan for getting through it is what gives your leadership a comfort level and trust in your abilities as a project manager.

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