Project Management

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Topics: Ethics, Leadership, Organizational Culture, Talent Management
Leadership in balancing your boss' instructions and communicating honestly with your customer.
You are managing a complex, multi-dimensional project that is over budget, has not met most of the delivery dates, and has several technical issues.

Your boss tells you that the customer will likely cancel the project if she hears any more bad news. He stresses that you should focus only on the positive and not bring bad news unless the problem has been solved.

You know that there are many technical problem areas, that as of yet, do not have solutions. To make matters worse, you also know that there exist several open risks on the project.

You have developed a good working relationship with the customer and have a weekly meeting to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How would you respond to your boss? How would you change your weekly communication with the customer?
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First, if you are facing that situation then you have fail as project manger if and only if you do not put on the table all related to risk and issues to anticipate the situation. Second, question is, why do you think they are bad news? If you think they are bad news then people will perceive and will receive they are bad news. One of the key things to be successful in project management is to understand that they are not bad news. Work on that and communicate it to all people involved.
Karthik -

if I have a good working relationship with the customer, that is likely because it is based on transparency and trust. There's little point in hiding or candy-coating negative variances or issues, but when presenting concerns to the client it is always advisable to have worked with the team to come up with options which can be presented at the same time.

You received good counsel from our colleagues, Karthik. I want to add something specifically about issues.

In my projects, I divide my issues into those that affect the project outcome and those that do not. While we track all issues, only the former are reported formally. This is not "hiding", it is giving the right audience the right amount of information.
Finally, but not less important, there is the ethics matter.
If your boss gives this kind of orders he may have ethical issues that should not drag you over, this may push you into making decisions.
As a PM, I am often the customer for some other PM's project. If I discover my supplier is hiding things, I consider that very bad news.

There is a difference between hiding problems, and managing the message. On challenging projects, there are always unexpected problems. If there are not, you have to question whether or not the project was aggressive enough to justify project management, rather than just administrative oversight.

I often tell my customers about problems even when I don't have a complete solution for both transparency, and to hopefully explain that we understand the problem. It is one thing to say, "There is a problem and we have no solution yet." It is another to say, "We generally understand the nature of the problem, the approach to work it, the magnitude of the issue, and believe that we can solve it without significant disruption. If it gets bigger we will tell you."

That provides confidence that I am being honest with them but have the situation under control. It changes the message from "We have a problem." to "We are closely managing our risks and issues."
As you probably see by no the consensus is that hiding is bad. I like what Stephane said - You need to evaluate the impact it will have on the project i.e. the customer. It makes no sense to spread panic if an issue is manageable but then err on the side of caution. I also worked in an organization where lying and hiding things from the customer was considered very important if you wanted to qualify for the team player award. While you might move on from this employer someday (hopefully soon) remember that you might cross paths with this customer again in the future and they will remember your honesty and integrity. Do the right thing.
In my opinion, bad news must be shared ASAP with the customer. In the event of PM hides, whenever the customer will eventually find out, project will be cancelled. But if you share the truth, ground realities, chances are that this project may be cancelled but you will have some goodwill and may get future projects
A lot of time, the customer is not aware and mostly not interested in Technical issues but wants a information only on the budget and the delivery timelines. Its balancing the right amount of information which is required to be provided to the customer. Hiding the information is not going to be fruitful and will create a negative impact overall in current and future work.
The project is already over budget, so from here you need to cut costs aggressively. Now your boss is saying that if customer will hear any more bad news "REMEMBER MORE BAD NEWS" it means you need to work with your team members very closely and make sure project sponsors and your stakeholders must be aware about this.
You are showing transparency and fairness regarding to your work and try to follow "Analogous estimation" or take suggestion from "Experts".
I agree with the fact that its good to be transparent with the customer as he is one of the stakeholders who can bail the project out.

The right amount of information to the right stakeholders at the right time will be helpful in challenged projects. It is also good to keep the project leadership posted so there is no ambiguity in what has been communicated. At times, a need is felt to keep such information sharing documented or recorded.

Thank you. Great discussion on a contemporary topic.
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