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How Do You Deliver Bad News About Your Project?

~ By Jennifer Whitt

Cartoon of business leader and follower: WAY behind you

We know the expression "Don't Kill the Messenger" indicates that the person delivering the bad news is not the same person responsible for causing the bad news. In our day-to-day activity as Project Managers we find that the recipient of bad news (managers, project stakeholders, and customers) sometime forgets this and react inappropriately.

It is a given that the Project Manager is responsible for the success of their project. However, there are events that arise that may be entirely out of anyone's control. For example; shifts in management at a client could introduce delays, or new technology is taking longer to implement than anticipated.

Add to this the role that the PM plays as Risk Manager on reporting issues that have the potential of turning into bad news, and the messenger can turn into someone that nobody likes to see. This is not a good position to be in.

Over the years, I've watched three different approaches PMs have used to deliver bad news:

  • The Grenade: This is where the messenger walks into a crowded room (typically full of executives), delivers the bad news with all of its horrendous consequences without any warning, and then leaves. This is totally unacceptable, ineffective and not sustainable…primarily for the PM's career.
  • The Silent Treatment: This is where the messenger chooses NOT to deliver the message. The reasoning may be that they feel the problem will resolve itself, or they don't want to deal with the subsequent activity necessary to resolve the situation. This approach is not recommended.
  • The Trial Balloon: This has been the most effective method I've seen used. The messenger meets with a couple of stakeholders at a time, laying out the facts of the situation with a "let me pass something by you" approach. This allows for additional options to be considered, further information to be introduced (for example, more resources may be available that the PM did not know were available) and crafting of the final message to occur prior to introducing it to the entire group. The result is that the messenger doesn't stand alone, multiple options have been considered, and the bad news is not sensationalised.

Delivering bad news about your project is an inevitable part of our jobs as Project Managers. It takes discretion, skill and good judgment on how to effectively deliver bad news without leaving a path of destruction behind.


Jennifer Whitt is a speaker, trainer, Certified Performance Coach, author, and company president of PDUs2Go.com. She is a PMI-certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and knows how difficult it can be to make time for classroom or online learning so she has developed a new way for Project Managers to Earn n' Learn while on the go. For more information, please visit http://www.pdus2go.com


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