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Entries in program (1)

Monday
Mar122012

When to Deliver Bad News

Timing around delivering “bad news” can be tricky.  Deliver too quickly, and you’ll be accused of panicking.  Wait too long and it will be suggested you hid a problem.

It’s our experience giving people bad news sooner rather than later is the key.  If you are working on a major program, you might list “bad news” on a Risk/Issues register…where a risk is something that might happen, and an issue is something that has happened.

We always try to work an issue before raising a red flag.  After all, it’s our job to work items and make them non-issues.  Sometimes there just is no way out.

When you identify an issue, always try to suggest mitigations…so the issue just doesn’t lay on the table without hope.

A few other factors always come in to play:

  • Nobody likes surprises – the last thing an executive wants is to be surprised by an issue.  Most executives are accomplished at hearing bad news when they know bad news is coming.  It can be as simple as saying, “We’ve got some bad news to cover,” followed by an explanation.  Often the executive has ways to mitigate an issue…and can when given the opportunity.

One time a subordinate sent out an email with a CFO’s name on it.  The CFO had not seen or approved the email.  When this was uncovered, we went to the CFO, explained the situation, let him get a little red-faced, and then knew we would live for another day when he said, “All we can do now is backfill, so how do we do that?”

  • Share bad news privately – inexperienced project managers will clearly identify an issue on a report or status and leave it at that.  This presumes the busy executive has time to read the report!  Make a point of sharing bad news privately

Execs are people, too.  Sometimes they just need the privacy to drop an f-bomb and then get their game face on.

  • Always get to the executive first – bad news travels like wildfire.  Executives want to help, and feel betrayed if they hear about issues from a peer or in a status meeting.

When an executive feels they are the last to hear bad news, trust erodes quickly.  Executives may not like bad news, but they appreciate knowing about it first.

Simple?  In a blog, it is simple.  In the real world it is much more complicated and gets into the personalities involved:

  • Is the executive available (or traveling?)
  • Bad news on Fridays can be tough.
  • When is the “big meeting” (whether related or not)

Our rule of thumb is the bigger the risk, the quicker we must act.