Bearing Bad News is a Job Requirement for Project Managers

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When reporting to your stakeholders that all is not well and that you need more money, time, and resources, how can / should this status be presented? Because projects are full of unwelcome, unplanned events, bearing bad news is a job requirement for project managers. All projects, even those that are wildly successful, are replete with re-planning, backtracking, and fancy footwork. What makes bearing bad news difficult is a sense of personal responsibility. Which would you rather report: that the project will be two months late because the staff is on strike and your people will not cross the picket line or that the project will be one week late because one of the development activities has slipped? You would probably prefer the first. After all, you have no control over strikes, but the schedule was your responsibility.

Responsibility is frequently confused with blame, leading to the notion that because project managers are responsible, problems are your fault. If you believe this, you will be more concerned with self-protection than with solutions, and your demeanor will destroy your effectiveness in presenting the problem.

  • Differentiate between Responsibility and Blame: – Sometimes the distinction is not obvious; it does not seem unreasonable to say, “I was responsible. I accept the blame.” Yet, accept for those instances where you really did mess up, accepting the blame is unproductive, improper, and wrong. Consider an example. You have just learned that one of your key resources, whose skills are unique within the company and who is essential to your project’s success, has been injured in an accident. You have been concerned about your exposure as this is your only expert, so you have had this person train others, but their skills are still rudimentary and they will not be able to finish the work on schedule. Furthermore, if they take over the work, they will no longer be available for their own. As you review the situation, you conclude that the project will suffer a delay of about one month.Is this your fault? Are you to blame for the accident? Given that you attempted to resolve the lack of expertise, are you even to blame for the project’s predicament? Of course you are not to blame. But you are responsible. You are responsible for solving the problem and, to the extent possible, getting the project back on track. While it would be unreasonable for your management to blame you for the situation, it is their right to expect you to find the best solution.The difference between responsibility and blame is the timeline. Blame lies in the past, responsibility in the future. Blame asks, “Who did this?” Responsibility asks, “How do we fix it?” Blame says, “You are unworthy.” Responsibility says, “Let’s get on with it.” Those who fully accept responsibility are too busy to accept blame.
  • Lay the Groundwork: – Set realistic expectations and that you alert management of potential problems. Setting realistic expectations is part of responsibility. If you assured your management that absolutely there would be no problems and you must now report a schedule slippage, your fall from grace is a direct result of irresponsibility: You made commitments that you could not keep. The responsible answer when you are asked for a commitment is that you will do your best but that you cannot give any guarantees. This is not setting up an expectation of failure; it is insisting that reality accompany the commitments you make. Alerting management of potential problems means keeping them apprised of your concerns. If, early in the project, you report that you doubt the validity of one set of estimates, and if you periodically confirm your suspicions as the project progresses, you are doing three things: soliciting assistance in solving a potential problem, preparing your management for the bad news if it materialises, and making your concern a management problem.
  • Respond to the Problem: – If you simply inform your management that the project has slipped, you will deserve their wrath. As project manager, you are more than a courier. If, however, you tell them of the slippage, let them know the impact, describe what you are doing about it, and seek their advice and assistance, then you are practicing responsibility; you are in control of the situation and not merely reporting it.
  • Involve Management in the Solution: – There are two reasons for this: They will probably be able to take action you cannot and the more focused they are on solving the problem, the less they will be concerned about blame.

The first two strategies, laying the groundwork and planning a response, are central in keeping your management up to date. But involving management is more than a tactic. You want to involve them because they are a resource that can help the project succeed. Conscientious managers want to help and are willing to contribute their experience and position. Conscientious project managers use whatever resources are available.

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