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“No bad project news for you, 1 week!”

July 23, 2013

Eighth Avenue, and 55th street, NYC; a pretty blah neighborhood at the time. Walking around noon to get an equally blah lunch when I see a long line of people waiting, in the sun, to enter a store.  Obviously I wanted to see what’s up, so I walked over, and read the sign – ‘Soup Kitchen International’, the setting for Seinfeld’s famous Soup Nazi episode, aired just days before.  He looked the same as the actor, spoke the same, gestured just as rudely and had strict rules for ordering posted all over the place.  The soup was delicious  Legend has it Seinfeld and others went there a few weeks later whereby the Soup Nazi threw him out, claiming the show ruined his business (not true, apparently), saying sarcastically, “no soup for you 1 week!” Wouldn’t it be refreshing not to hear bad news for just 1 week?

We do a lot of project rescue work, getting a strategic project back on track before it’s officially declared a ‘runaway’ or ‘failure’, and when we ask for  one reason why they’re where they are, the answer 99.99999% of the time is “surprises and a lack of communications about our true status”. Management loses faith in the vendor, the professional services vendor (or the vendor’s own implementers) and even their own PMO.

We recently wrote about having planned failure points in change initiatives, and implementing a common language to analyze and discuss failures so repeatable lessons can be gleaned and institutionalized.  The idea is to both prevent avoidable repeat fails as well as mentally freeing everyone to think out of the box and deliver real breakthroughs.  However, with failure, even controlled failure, comes bad news delivery. So what is also needed, and what we rarely find, is a structured method to deliver unwelcome news, helping everyone move forward towards action without the usual ‘psychological hangover’ or an entire project relationship being labeled ‘Troubled- Severely At Risk’.

By this point in our careers, we’ve all delivered bad news, often mimicking what we saw our first managers do, right or wrong.  For those of us who worked (or work) in organizations with highly structured HR processes, we’ve been trained in delivering unpleasant news to underperforming employees.  So, by now, isn’t delivering a strong message old hat? Can’t we deliver project issues ‘old school’?

Just like the emerging body of work on how to fail fast and with minimal cost and maximum learning (see our previous posts covering this), there’s an emerging body of work on frameworks for delivering bad news in organizations.  You can Goggle ‘delivering bad news’ and see the journals, but basically, as you expect, delivering  bad news has 3 components and are used to train professional unwelcome news delivers – Doctors, Coroners, Clergy and Law Enforcement personnel.

  1. Preparing the content
  2. Delivering the message
  3. Transitioning

Delivering bad news about a project

PR professionals, politicians and wiser project teams use a newer approach, modeled after the 24/7 News Cycle, i.e. more adapted to how people consume information and shape opinions today.  Here’s our version:

  1. Get the bad news out early. As soon as you can see that the light at the end of the tunnel is the #4 IRT Express train, get the story out there, with full disclosure. Once the situation is ‘out there’, even if it’s only the partial story, you lose control and catch-up info sounds like an excuse or spin.  Not good for vendor legitimacy.
  2. Frame what happened. Use terms the listener will quickly understand, free of jargon, but at a detailed level. If the listener asks what time it is, this is not the time to delve into the history of wristwatches. Keep it to all relevant facts.
  3. Present the way forward. A vendor asking for opinions is not a healthy sign at this stage.  Present a realistic go-forward plan, already pre-sold (and ideally, co-developed) with the internal participants.    This keeps you in control of the narrative.
  4. Put the news behind you. Once everyone agrees to the go-forward remediations, put the distressing news behind you and stop referring to it, unless the underlying cause remains unchanged.

Acting on the bad news

How do you receive bad news and move from stunned to anger to action? We’ve seen people have trouble making the transition from anger to action, but ultimately, this situation has to be either fixed or shut down.  So what is a constructive but realistic approach?

  1. Stop your natural reaction. Don’t jump directly into solution mode by micro-managing,
  2. It’s OK to shoot the messenger if need be. By now, vendor judgment (and thus legitimacy) is a vital concern – the key is how much time were you given between when you were given the unfortunate message and when a decision must be taken?  For example, were they within $1.38 of budget when they told you of the need for additional funding?  Is this because they lack financial controls or did they paint you into a corner?  Competent vendors know early on when a project is capable of going off the rails.  The question is, when did they tell you? Here’s a link to Rick Moranis’ question about team legitimacy from Space Balls, and I’ve seen a version of this in real life several times behind closed doors: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhLqPfAylF4
  3. Do they understand what happened, really? Given the facts, as presented, do you see any holes?  Any omissions?  Any gaps? If this vendor wants to maintain legitimacy, full disclosure is required. I recommend interviewing 1 or 2 levels down in the project staff from the Partner/Project Manager to get a street level view of what’s going on.
  4. Don’t blindly accept the go-forward plan. Finally, do not follow the proposed remediation plan without first seeking input from outside the combined internal-external project team.   In my experience, these non-involved counselors provide different perspectives and concerns and can help you access the vendor’s judgment, so you know if this is one time or reoccurring issue. Added fees, if any, are negotiated at this step.

Just like the 24/7 News Cycle, it’s about communications and the best way to avoid receiving bad news is to create a transparent communication culture, so issues are addressed as they occur, while still small.

Richard Eichen is the Founder and Managing Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, 
http://www.growroe.com 
, focusing on companies, initiatives and products where technology is the primary means of delivery and revenue. He is one of their senior turnaround, transformation, Program Rescue and Process Rescue leaders.  As a Change Agent, Trusted Advisor, Program Leader and Interim Executive, Rich has over 25 years hands-on experience reshaping companies, Operations, IT/Systems Integration and strategic initiatives.  He can be reached at richard.eichen@growroe.com, and followed on Twitter, @RDEgrowroe.

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