~ By Brad Egeland
In Part 1 of this two part series on delivering less than favourable project news to the client, we examined the first two steps of my personal four-step process of preparing for and delivering bad news to my project client. Unfortunately, I've had to do this before…on multiple occasions…and it's never fun. My most memorable one - as I referenced in Part 1 - was sharing with my very large gaming and hospitality project client that our CEO had been found to be fraudulent and took his own life…and was taking the entire company down with him. They ultimately wanted to hire me to come work for them and continue the work I was already performing on their behalf. While I did not take them up on the offer, it did signal to me that my process must have been the right one.
I have already discussed the steps of gathering info and devising options…now let's look at the final two steps of my process:
You always want to sound as sincere as possible. If you rehearse the speech too much, you may sound fake so be careful. But you don't want to sound like you lack confidence and direction either. You need them to be confident in you if you want to have any chance of gaining their co-operation and understanding. So practice what you're going to say, write it down and have bullets to refer to when you meet with their CEO, the project sponsor, or whoever you line up for the bad news presentation. But be firm, be confident, and be ready to discuss proactively two or three options to what seems to be a very bad situation. There may be no good response to present, but that doesn't matter. The key is to show them that you've put some thought and research into it, and you're trying to work in their best interest. When I had to tell a government agency that we had exhausted their $1.25 million budget, and we were still $350,000 away from finishing the effort, at least I came with solid numbers and that's what they wanted and needed to hear so that they could make a sound decision on what to do next.
Finally, set up that tough meeting and present the bad news and whatever positive options you can present. Remember, be confident and direct. Anything less sounds like you're withholding information and will immediately cause your project customer to lose confidence. When I had to present the information about our fraudulent CEO, the CIO I was presenting to had not yet heard the bad news or the news stories online or on TV. That's good and bad actually. They didn't come into the meeting with any preconceived notion about how far down the fraud may have gone in my company's infrastructure. However, that also meant that all of the "shock and awe" and disappointment happened right there during my presentation. It was very uncomfortable, to say the least. But really, it's in your best interest and allows you the most control over the situation if you can be that first presenter of the news before any other opinions have been formed.
It's human nature to want to only present good news. We slow down to watch the "train wreck" of others sometimes, but we hate being the ones who have to actually present the news. As the board member for a Christian youth ministry a few years ago, I went with our main youth ministry leader to meet with the mother of one of our teenagers in the program who had died just the day before in a car accident. That was a very uncomfortable and difficult situation for me, but as a parent and being in the position I was in, it was necessary to do it and helpful to understand this process of delivery, response and understanding. She needed that discussion with us as we were some of the last people to talk to her daughter and it allows for some closure. But it was terrifyingly difficult.
How have you had to deliver bad news on projects that you've led or worked on? How did you prepare? What did you learn from it and what worked well? Please share your thoughts and experiences.