Project management: How to deliver bad news

By: Pat Gray
22 February, 2010

Bad news and project management seem to go hand in hand. No matter how well you plan, how detailed your documentation, how dedicated your team, there may still be problems. But there are ways of delivering bad news that can save your project, your team and even your job!

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that bad news is delivered in the right way.

  1. Offer alternatives
    When you have to announce your bad news, have two or three options up your sleeve for resolving the problems and moving the project forward. Have the necessary information and support to backup your alternatives – a new schedule, rough design diagram ,or buy-in from your customer.
  2. Don't point the finger
    Even if it is someone else's fault, don't start by saying "so-and-so is to blame". Let the evidence do the work of pointing the finger. When the source of the problem(s) becomes apparent, don't complain about how wrong, stupid, or incompetent they are – give them the benefit of the doubt, and let their chain of command take action.
  3. Accept responsibility if it's your fault
    We are human, we all make mistakes. If you've made a mistake, accept responsibility. It's the right thing to do, and it's the professional thing to do. And remember, your team is also your responsibility, so if they make a mistake, it is your mistake too.
  4. Provide documentation
    Good project managers document everything, so not only should you know about the problems before they become critical, you will have done your best to prevent and report the problem in the first place. Your documentation will also provide the evidence to show you have done everything you could have done.
  5. Don't say "I told you so"
    Unless you can see that this is going to be your last day on the job, and even then, telling your boss or your customer "I told you so" won't solve anything, and will only serve to burn bridges. If you have in fact told them, and told them again, they know it and you know it, and your documentation proves it. There's no need to rub it in.

Delivering bad news is never easy, but there are ways of doing it that will reduce the impact on your project and your career. If you can't prevent the problems, the least you can do is manage them, and take control of their delivery.