How to…deliver bad news in a project

I recently received an email from a fellow Project Manager with the following question:

“Dear Emily,

I’d like to ask advice on how to best manage this situation. My project has not been going very well and I need to tell the end client that not only can we not deliver on time but that it will cost more than originally estimated. What should I do? I’m worried how this will appear to my boss as well how the end customer will take it. I cannot afford to lose this job. 

Your advice is appreciated.


Here are a few tips if you find yourself in this position:

  1. Get a clear understanding of the situation and current status.
    1. This is the first step that you need to make sure that you’re doing and make sure that you’re doing it well! I recommend working with the team to understand just how ‘bad’ the bad news is and what the current situation and possible mitigations are. It’s important to consult your experts here and do not do this exercise alone. Whilst you are doing this, you can…
  2. Get your stakeholders aligned
    1. Start communicating! Predominantly this will be internally with your bosses/team to make sure that they’re all aligned on the current status and what your next steps
  3. Work out the best delivery strategy
    1. This is perhaps one of the most important steps! You need to work out a plan! You need to decide what is the best way to deliver this news to the end customer and how you will present this.
    2. You need to be culturally/ organisationally sensitive to the best way to deliver bad news in your project. Should you present the news to a core group first to explain and then gather support? or is a full team meeting appropriate?
    3. What information should be shared? What will be sufficient detail? and what is too much?
  4. Come prepared!
    1. This will be one of the most time consuming steps! You’ll need to make sure that you’re prepared with all of the details to be able to explain the bad news, what you’re going to do about it, what the next steps are and the impact of the bad news. This will heavily depend on what the news is!
      1. If it’s a time delay: Look at showing the impact of the delay, possible mitigations and what this means for the project / stakeholders
      2. If it’s a scope issue: Show them what this means for the end scope/delivery. Can you deliver as expected? will it take longer? is the project even feasible as a result of this change?
  5. Follow through on your commitments.
    1. When you are delivering your strategy and the bad news, you’ll be making some commitments. It could be to return to the group when you have more information or it could be verification on your assumptions/next steps. Either way, whatever you commit to, you need to honour your word and deliver and if you can’t be sure to communicate that to!

The thing about delivering bad news is that it isn’t fun…. or particularly nice. It’s always going to have a consequence and you need to manage this accordingly. It can be very easy to bury your head in the sand.

2019-04-01 21_36_21-dilbert bad news - Google Search
Image copyright of Dilbert

What if you don’t manage the bad news correctly?

If, for whatever reason you do not handle the delivery of the bad news well, then you need to go into damage mitigation. This could be working out:

  • What went wrong? Why did the message come across incorrectly? was there not enough information provided? was it to the wrong group of people? What was the status?
  • How can you rectify it? Who should you present to? What should you present? It can help to ask team or organisation advice for this if you’re not sure
  • Be timely! Don’t ignore the mistake! Instead work on it and make sure that you can rectify any issues ASAP.

So, Jamil… the best thing to do if you need to deliver bad news is to address the issue as soon as possible and come up with a plan of action. Work with your team and understand the impact and next steps as quickly as possible

What are your tips for delivering bad news?

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