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5 Reasons Projects Fail: #4 Procrastinating bad news

A version of this post was originally featured on You can read the original here.

Communicating bad news as early as possible is one of the most critical functions of project leaders. Yet, it’s one of the hardest parts of the job. As we’ll cover later in the post, there’s actually some very valid reasons for that.

Bad news is not cheese or wine; it gets worse with age. An ignored cost earlier in the process increases exponentially every step of the way. For example, every dollar that a leader “costs” the organization to correct something in the Defintion phase may actually save an organization double, four times, or almost ten times that depending on how long it would have been put off.

This is because the earlier a project manager confronts a potential problem, the more recourse you have. If caught in definition, you can increase the budget and time, make adjustments to the scope, put procedures in place to monitor risk areas. If addressed during initiation, adroit planning can still allay the risks that shoddy planning incurs. You might already have certain high-level specs, but you can prioritize which parts of the project will require the most time, money and attention. Even if you recognize the problem after execution begins, options are still available: you can re-baseline, adjust the plan, set new goals, etc.

If you simply avert the pain until it becomes a reality, then you will be left with no recourse. You’ll be wondering what went wrong instead of preparing its prevention. When risks turn into issues we need to find a way to deal with the costs of time, effort, and money to resolve these problems. In that case, a project will either miss its targets, make significant sacrifices to quality, or be cancelled altogether

So why don’t we “Just do it”?

Even if you’ve heard all of the above a thousand times and every rational fiber of your being knows we should stay ahead of problems, very few of us want to do it. Why is that?

Part of it comes down to where project managers fall in the structure of the organization. By definition, middle-management leaders face a paradox. They are held accountable for tasks people below them are performing while at the mercy of people above them when significant intervention is necessary. Project managers in particular often oversee the work of people who aren’t even accountable to them.

Certain organizational dynamics can exacerbate this. When things don’t go as planned, even if the leader tells the stakeholders, who’s to say that will do any good? Some organizations simply have a culture of shooting the messenger. Some stakeholders might heed bad news but be resistant to any of the recommendations. They might want you to “fix it” but don’t want to sacrifice time, money, or specs.

These external realities just enable an instinct inherent in every human. At the end of the day, everyone naturally wants to seek pleasure and avert pain. Even within an ideal organization, everyone would rather be praised than harp on everything that is going wrong with their project. Good leaders have to betray this instinct on a regular basis.

Our next post covers another natural human inclination that you can use in your favor to resolve these issues: rapport.

For a free copy of our white paper Eliminating Project Failure: Creating a Culture of Project Perfection, go here.

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