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Survey: Reporting Bad News about Projects

Bad news with projects abounds. More than nine in 10 project managers (94 percent) have had to deliver bad news to managers or executives in the last year, according to a recent, online survey hosted by MPUG. So it’s probably no wonder that people managing projects also consider themselves fairly expert at delivering bad news. On a scale of one to five, respondents rated themselves on average at about 4.3. Although the results of the survey were non-scientific, they still provide insights about how project managers who consider themselves experienced in delivering bad news do the job.

Bad News on Projects = Schedule Delays

Bad news doesn’t follow a single track. In fact, most project managers reported on bad news with many facets. However, in almost every case the bad news had to do with schedule delays; 88 percent of the time that was what needed to be reported. Almost half the time (reported by 49 percent of respondents) there were budget overruns and nearly as often there was scope creep (reported by 46 percent). In a third of the situations (37 percent), lack of communication was at the heart of the problem. Other, less common activities were staff disinterest (12 percent) or sponsorship pullback (seven percent). Respondents also noted bad news related to the product not working as intended or not being accepted by users, vendor issues and lack of resources.

What kind of bad news was reported

Schedule delays
Budget overruns
Scope creep
Lack of communication
Staff disinterest
Sponsorship pullback


Reporting Methods and Response

The face-to-face approach is the preferred method for reporting bad news. Two-thirds of project managers (68 percent) used that means to deliver their grim update. Email was the next most common method, used by 39 percent of respondents. Other means included via virtual meeting (29 percent) and to an individual person (29 percent) and by phone (12 percent).

Along with the information about the project problems, project managers were also likely to offer solutions too. In the most recent example of having to deliver bad news, three-quarters of respondents (76 percent) said they or somebody else proposed a way out of the dilemma as well.

The way managers and executives responded to the bad news in that latest incident was all over the emotional spectrum. The most common response was frustration, reported by 44 percent of respondents. A third of senior people (37 percent) reacted by giving advice. Three in 10 (29 percent) responded with “calm.” And two in 10 (17 percent) got mad.

How managers and executives responded to bad news

With frustration
With advice
With calm
With anger
With a solution different from the PM’s
With no reaction at all
With a solution
With humor




One manager told the person delivering the bad news that the proposal “was well prepared,” another agreed with the PM’s suggestion, and a third leader offered to assist in removing “any barriers” if needed. Then there are the bosses nobody would choose to have. One person said the executive came back with “warnings that the new solution must work.” Another felt “hurt because he was the inventor of the product.” And one responded with blame, “although I had negotiated a no-cost solution with the vendor.”

Advice for Delivering Bad News

Nearly everybody shared advice for delivering bad news. If there were a way to summarize the guidance, it would be this: Communicate unwelcome information as soon as possible, without emotion, face to face and in person, with an explanation about what happened and a solution or two in hand.

“Be open and honest about how the situation came about and how to resolve the issues,” said one respondent. “Provide options for the path forward and ask for other solutions to the issue. Admit to internal mistakes. People seem to be much more reasonable when they understand the situation.”

Another project manager suggested the bearer of bad news do so in an executive meeting “with your customer beside you, supporting your solution.”

“The news is the news,” noted one person. Deliver it, “unapologetically, directly and dispassionately.” Then be ready to “move on to discuss what might be done to recover or act in accordance with risk plan.”

Even if you’re not sure about the viability of a possible solution, propose it anyway to jumpstart discussion, added one PM: “It may not be the final solution but it will at least get people thinking of how to tackle the issue.”

Alison Sigmon, author of Delivering Bad News in Good Ways who has also written and spoken for MPUG on the topic, offers her own advice: “What happens before giving bad news is just as important as the discussion and follow-up. Acknowledging your feelings and your thoughts, evaluating options and considering your plan going forward for that conversation will go a long way to [determining] how well the conversation goes.”

Have your own advice for reporting the bad news? Share it with MPUG readers in the comments below.

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Written by Dian Schaffhauser

Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG’s editor. She’s been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at editor@mpug.com. She promises to let you know what she really thinks.

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  1. Great article Di! My advice for reporting bad news (you have covered) is, “I’ve got some bad news, and I’ve got some good news.” With the good news being a good analysis of the problem and a possible solution or two, based on good data.” This advice is given during my MS Project workshops, where I try to get students to use MS Project data in these situations. In my experience, even the most obtuse of execs can usually relate to a data-driven suggestion.

  2. If you are a project admin or small “m’ project manager, you just report it. Be honest and no surprises. However, a Project Manager or Leader will, as Jigs says, have the data to back up the bad news and much more importantly, have a plan or options to recover.

    I worked with a very large company that had acquired a competitor. I was consulting to the strategic planning group while others were helping the IT group do the integration between the two companies. My forthright suggestion was baselined schedules with objective indicators and regular updates. The management consulting company (a very well known firm) advocated PowerPoint and subjective indicators.

    The IT org’s first responsibility was to integrate the two companies basic systems: Email, IM, collaboration and HR data. They had an 8 month project to do so. For 5 months, the CIO told the Board that everything was green. At month 6, she reported that it was red and that IT would need another 5 months to recover. The next day she and several of her direct reports were fired. There were a lot of good reasons to fire her – poor estimates, lack of progress, poor communications all contributed. But lying about the progress (or lack thereof) was what convinced the Board that changes were needed.


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