The importance of having the difficult conversations

It’s never fun when things don’t go according to plan. This is particularly true in the case of project management, where high stakes are on the line.

Roadblocks or unsuspected changes in a project are often inevitable, too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re heading up a multiyear, multimillion-dollar construction operation or just the leader of a small software implementation. There are a multitude of uncontrollable aspects that can derail a project’s timeline. These can range from budget shortfalls to an unexpected request from a client, or even an underestimation of the project’s scope.

However rough the turbulence gets throughout a project, there is one thing that can always help mediate any issue: effective communication. The ability to identify a problem, get input from all sides, and work through to a solution is a critical skill for any project manager to have. So much so that the Project Management Institute published a report revealing that 1 in 5 projects are unsuccessful due to ineffective communications.

Communications during the project can mean a lot of things; day-to-day project tasks, meetings to capture information, status meetings, and so on. While these are crucial parts of successful project communication, there is one important topic that is often overlooked: delivering bad news. No one wants to be the villain and report a blown budget or that the project is behind.

But having that conversation is the one thing that could save a failing project.

Let’s take this example into account: After a project is underway, a project manager discovers that what they need to complete the project requires a lot more effort than initially estimated. We will take a look at two different ways to approach this issue and determine which is the more viable solution.


Scenario 1

After discovering that the project is going to be more robust than planned, the project manager fails to communicate the excess estimate to the client. Instead, he has the team charge ahead to build the solution. As a result, the project has to be pushed out two weeks to fulfill the contract, delaying everything else in its path.

When the client notices user acceptance testing is scheduled two weeks later than planned, he questions why the project is not on schedule. The project manager then has to explain that it’s a result of the features they requested that were more complex.  Although the team completed the project, the client is rightfully displeased that he had to unexpectedly increase the overall budget and extend the timeline at the last minute.


Scenario 2

After stumbling upon the increased workload demand, this project manager takes immediate action with the client. She sets a meeting right away to explain the change in estimate and the potential impact.  She doesn’t just deliver the bad news—she comes prepared with solutions.

She presents a couple of options: build the solution and extend the timeline and budget, build the solution and remove other items from the project’s scope, or not build this solution at all. The client then has the opportunity to work with their business owners to determine which components are a must-have, and those which are merely supplemental to the core build. They reach a decision and extend timeline and budget accordingly to build everything they want.  


Good communication builds a better reputation

In these two scenarios, although the client got what they asked for and the outcome was the same, the difference in customer satisfaction is immediately apparent and will have different impacts on the two project managers. The client’s opinion of the project manager in Scenario 1 is likely less than ideal, and this may mean the customer will not pursue repeat business. Additionally, he also might not recommend the project manager’s services to others.

In Scenario 2, while still unhappy with the unforeseen circumstances, the client appreciated the transparency in communication the project manager demonstrated. He will feel confident that this partner understands their concerns and can be trusted to perform. This creates a much higher chance for future work with the client as well as positive recommendations to others.


Project managers should feel empowered to speak up when situations arise that may compromise a project’s success. How you handle these difficult conversations and, more importantly, when you have those conversations will dictate the project’s outcome and your ability to land repeat work—the ultimate success.


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