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Keeping Secrets from Clients

Dear Elizabeth:

I’m in a bit of a pickle. The project I’m currently managing is not going to make the delivery date because a handful of developers got moved to another project. But my boss has told me not to say anything to the client—yet. Well a week has gone by, and the client keeps asking me for updates, and I find myself having to spin one white lie after another, which I hate. How do I proceed in a way that I can be honest, and make the client and my boss happy? — Uncool Cucumber

Dear Uncool:

Goodness, I don’t envy you. In some situations it’s fine not to say anything to a client straight away, say for example, if you expect to be resolving the issues imminently so that their project is not going to be affected. Let’s not stress clients out for no reason. If you can deal with the problem and keep them out of it, then great.

But that isn’t happening in your situation. I think a week is plenty long enough to keep this client in the dark about what is potentially a showstopper for their work. They might have a big launch planned, and if you can’t keep your company’s side of the bargain then ultimately the relationship with this client will be damaged longer term (an unscrupulous boss might even blame you for losing the client).

I would tell my boss that I am going to tell the client. He or she needs to support you in making sure that message is a pain-free for the client as possible. In other words, they need to help you find some extra developers. Could you buy them in? Could you get them back? Could you pay them overtime?

Take a few suggestions to your boss. They will all cost money but you can offset that against the cost of bad publicity, reputational damage and the cost of losing the client. Ask your boss to approve a solution that helps you get back on track.

If they won’t, I would still tell the client. Be honest and explain your resourcing problem. Ask them for help with resolving the problem, and see what they can do from their side to put pressure on your management team to free up additional resources. They can escalate it within their management structure and that will come back to your boss eventually. It will be uncomfortable. But you’ll have done the right thing for the project, for your client and for your company.

Every month, project management expert, Elizabeth Harrin, fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog. This selection is used with permission.


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1 Comment
  1. Wow, there’s so many ways this could go and depending upon the PM maturity of your organization you could have different avenues. It could be that this particular manager is a rogue or there is a very good reason for holding off. If your manager can’t explain why you need to hold off you’ve had a major change to your project (change management) that is posing a serious issue to your project (issue management) and these should be documented and, if you have one, your change and issue management plans should be followed. This is all assuming that enough understanding of PM within your organization that they’re not going to go after the messenger. It’s not an easy position and I’ve been provided the ‘opportunity’ to find new employment in the past by going against a boss who was doing things against established company policy. Wishing you all the best. If all answers were easy we would never have all these options available for personal growth! 🙂

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