How to give bad news to bosses and clients? A simple method that works.
Many years ago, I worked for a project sponsor named Michael. Michael wanted to know about every critical issue or problem first, much in advance of any formal project communication. He referred to these critical issues or problems as “bad news.” I remember our conversation as if it were yesterday.
Michael: “Niraj, this is an important project for our company. I understand you know this can affect our bottom line. I wanted to talk about how you would like to keep me informed and how I can help you succeed”
Niraj (I): “I will create status reports with details around big milestones. You will receive them every week. Do you need something else from me?”
Michael: “That is good. I want to hear all the news. Bad news even faster. I would like to know bad news as soon as you know about a serious problem.”
Niraj: “OK. I can promptly email you. Will that work?”
Michael: “Great! Can you call me on my cell if you think it’s really bad? I don’t expect you to have complete details about the bad news. I just want to know the headline right away.”
After working with Michael for a while I realized that he, like many other clients, did not appreciate walking into a steering committee meeting and learning about bad news on the spot. The good part was that I could even brainstorm and solicit advice from him regarding solutions to problems. As time passed, Michael became a mentor to me. He taught me how to navigate difficult organizational dynamics with confidence. He also gave me strategies and tips to engender trust among my project team members. Michael was a great boss and also a great partner. He made working with him and his team fun. We worked hard and enjoyed working for him.
Then there was this client Geeta who wanted to know all the details behind any issue – what, why, how and all the data points. Geeta was very good with the nuts and bolts of the department she was responsible for. She knew everything (well… almost everything) about the areas she worked in, and kept up with changes. She had gained deep technical expertise through her long tenure at the company.
Geeta used to get angry at her subordinates if they did not have all the details. People feared her wrath if they did not have complete details before they presented an issue to her. Needless to say, I needed more time to collect data before sharing an issue with the client. She generally was not the first senior stakeholder to find out about any issue. If you are a project leader managing complex projects, you probably know that it takes time to collect details about an issue for someone like Geeta.
When I became a stakeholder, I wanted to be like Michael. I would rather be ahead of the game than ask for all the information. I was also able to work closely with the project managers to add value to their career and projects. This approach enabled me to develop relationships with project managers that my peers were unable to cultivate. I believe that productive managers work with the 80-20 rule; that means 80 percent of information is good enough to move and make a decision.
Whether my clients were like Michael, Geeta or a blend of the two personalities, I learned a cardinal rule: Ensure that key clients and sponsors are informed about critical issues before going into a meeting with a large group. After all, it is the client’s project you are running and you want him or her to know about the issues beforehand. It allows them to prepare for possible questions and also craft ideas to answer them.
Let’s imagine that you are going to follow the rule I stated above. How do you put it into practice? Here are the steps you should follow to ensure your client is aware of the issues and problems.
- Build a one-on-one relationship with your client. Do it during project initiation.
- Ask your client how he or she prefers to receive and send communication (i.e., medium, tools and frequency). Do it during project planning.
- Ask your client which project item they deeply care about and which issues they would like to know about in advance. This will help you identify which major components or WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) level scope items are of critical importance to the client. Do it during project planning.
- Create a spreadsheet with these columns: component or WBS item, client’s name and medium. Do it during project planning.
- Whenever bad news is in sight, act on what you have on the spreadsheet for a component or WBS item right away. Do it during project execution, control and monitoring.
- As with the execution of all communication, complete a feedback loop. Follow up with the client to ensure the message was received exactly like you intended.
I will illustrate the steps above with an example. Let’s say your project is to build a tool to contact and acquire potential customers. Your main component or WBS items are: 1.) process to locate prospects, 2.) communication infrastructure to ensure you can call or email prospects and 3.) database to enter the prospects who are converted into customers
Your project sponsor is John, the Vice President (VP) of Sales Operations. Your steering committee chair is Maria, the VP of Finance. Approach John after you have an understanding of the WBS and ask him which project items he deeply cares about and which issues he would like to know about in advance. Your goal is to find out what will constitute “bad news” for John. Let’s say, he tells you that he wants to be involved in whatever process the team comes up with regarding sales prospects. His long term goal is to increase the number of prospects and the conversion percentage of prospects into customers.
At this point, you should mark John as the main person to keep in the know anytime there is an issue with the WBS item “1” as illustrated above. Create a spreadsheet with WBS items, client and communication medium in different columns.
You might need a reminder to review and act on the spreadsheet anytime you find out about a critical risk or an issue; I did in the beginning. After a while, it will become a habit and you will not need the reminder.
You can see how this communication approach helps the stakeholders: they receive relevant information in time for them to react and solve a problem. The flow of information seems effortless to them because they don’t have to change their communication preferences just to find out information about your project. They can also choose to become part of the solutions conversation.
So, how does this approach help you, the project leader? During project execution, a client will decide faster on project change requests resulting from bad news. Your project will be front and center on your client’s mind because you have kept them in the loop. You will gain respect from clients for your service-oriented leadership. When your project team members notice the respect you have gained from clients, they will trust your recommendations. When team members trust you, they will work harder for your project and will go the extra mile. You, the project leader, will avoid many problems that a rigid project manager faces such as resistance, backlash and sabotage – I have seen these outcomes manifest; they are not figments of my imagination). “Believe me; it will save you a lot of headache later. I generally ask them beforehand how they (stakeholders) want to interact with me,” says Dianne Schommer, a friend and Assistant Director at AbbVie. Diane has more than 20 years of experience in the project management arena.
Will you gain anything for your long term career, after a project is done and you’ve moved on to new ventures? Absolutely. Your clients will become your endorser because you kept their interest at heart when you worked for them. He or she will open doors for you. In fact, it happened to me. When a project ended and I told my client about my need for a new assignment, he picked up the phone and called his friends. I had a new client and a new project within a week. You would be perceived as customer-centric leader that clients prefer to hire, work with and support. Your stock will go up in the market place. You might even receive a higher remuneration.
With a clear step by step plan like the one I suggested above, you will know when to keep the special needs of your clients in mind. You will communicate with them proactively, and will stand out in the sea of mediocre project managers.
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 All names in this post have been disguised for anonymity.
 I have used clients and sponsors interchangeably. A project leader serves them the same way.