“The messenger is just conscientiously doing the job his boss assigned him. And this boss? That would be none other than our old friend Reality. “— Haruki Murakami

It turned out to be a trainwreck of a meeting.

The project leader had prepared well for the meeting. He had worked hard with his team to create a full plan for the project. They had never prepared a plan in which they were so confident. They had based the plan on solid data. They had turned over every opportunity for improving speed and had incorporated the ideas that made sense.  

He and his team had created a plan that was smart and aggressive. They were sure they were making a commitment for a high-quality product they would deliver on time.

The meeting went wrong right at the start.

The project leader was presenting the results of the planning session to the nervous project sponsors who were the funders of the project. This was a critical project for them.

The project leader started with the statement, “I am jubilant about this plan.  It is the best plan our team has ever made. I am confident our project will be able to deliver a high-quality product in 10 months.”

Thus began the trainwreck. 

The sponsors of the project needed and expected the project to be done in three months.  So this opening immediately led them to push the leader for better dates.  They asked many emotional questions. The project leader never got to present everything he wanted to show them.

He left with the action to put together a better plan which he knew was not really possible. He eventually was able to walk all the project sponsors and other stakeholders through the entire plan. It took a great deal of work before they understood the plan and bought in.  He lost precious time with his team while working through the emotions and the plan multiple times.

For future presentations of bad news, he followed my guidance.  

The following is the process pattern on how to provide sponsors with what they will perceive as bad news and give them the opportunity to build a strong bridge over troubled waters to achieve success.

  1. Talk to the main sponsors and stakeholders ahead of the meeting in one on one meetings.  This gives them the opportunity to process the information and be ready with ideas that are helpful to the project.
  2. Always start the conversation with the sponsors’ goals.  The receivers of bad news need to know that you understand and share their goals.
  3. Provide the bottom line in a concise, clear manner before going into details.
  4. State your disappointment that you couldn’t achieve everything in the time period desired.
  5. Take the sponsors through the journey of how you reached the conclusions.  Be clear about the major opportunities for speed you looked into and which ones you incorporated.
  6. Show the data you have accumulated based on previous projects.
  7. Provide options for going faster.  The plan you will have created is based on the resources under your control. If more people or better tools will help you go faster, provide the sponsors with options even if those options are outside their direct control.
  8. Repeat all these steps in the formal meeting.
  9. Work with the project sponsors to build a plan for success.

All important projects have risks and are hard. If they weren’t they would already be complete.

Doing these steps doesn’t remove the difficulty. It does help everyone know they are on the same side working towards success.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett
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