“It’s Worse Than We Thought”: How to Communicate Bad News on a Project

Posted on May 11, 2015 by Erin M

551984061“So… we’ve got some bad news and good news. The bad news is this project is now double the budget and the time. The good news is we might still get it done only two months behind schedule instead of three, but we’re not really sure.”

Yikes! Delivering bad news to a client is never easy, but when you fail to manage the delivery of this news, it can make the problem sound even worse. Whether it’s an unexpected cost overrun or a major delay, mastering the art of constructively communicating bad news on a project is essential to keeping your clients happy and preventing the problem from becoming any worse:

#1: Be upfront and never hide the facts.

In his Forbes article “The 10 Commandments for Delivering Bad News”, Georgetown University McDonough Business School Professor Robert Bies nails what I consider to be the most important commandment for any agency: “Thou shalt never delay.”

When you delay delivering bad news, you make the entire experience worse for both you and your client. Delaying the inevitable gives the problem time to grow. Worse, you look like you’ve been trying to hide the facts or that you’re not on top of your project.

It’s tempting to want to hold off for a few days or weeks in hopes that the problem will correct itself. Here’s the thing: it usually gets worse! As soon as you identify a potential problem, immediately assess the extent of this problem and how it impacts your timeline and budget. Put this in writing and communicate it promptly to the client.

#2: Bring solutions.

Don’t just drop a bad news bomb on your client and call it a day. Always present an action plan for solving the problem. When something goes wrong, it’s easy to dwell on the past, which only festers feelings of frustration. Keep the attention future-forward by presenting a plan to address the problem in a timely and cost-effective manner. Bad news is never great; bad news without a solution is just plain terrible.

#3: Be positive without spinning.

I started my career in Washington, D.C., the land of communication wizards who are experts at putting a positive spin on political problems. While I don’t suggest you try to spin away all your project problems (even inside the jaded Beltway, all that spinning can sound pretty insincere), I do recommend emphasizing the positives along with the bad news.

Let’s say your big project is going to take an extra two months to complete, putting you way behind schedule. But the delay is partially due to the fact you’ve just received invaluable market data that shows you were moving in the wrong strategic direction. Now you’re making a major pivot that will save your client some serious cash in the long run. Sharing a silver lining with your client can soften the blow; just be sure this silver lining is grounded in reality.

Bottom line:

Cost over-runs and timeline delays are two of the most common causes for project delays that inevitably lead to bad news. One of the easiest ways to keep these problems from getting out of control is to follow the first guideline of simple project management: always use a project management calendar!

A company-wide calendar is critical for assessing (and appropriately responding) to potential delays and over-runs caused by scope creep. While not all project disasters can be avoided, better planning can help prevent serious problems down the road and save you from having that awkward bad news conversation with your client!

Erin M is a freelance writer available for projects at WriterAccess.


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