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The Adventures of Dan the Project Manager Man - Risky Communications

We were nearing the end of a lengthy and complex implementation.  If we missed our deadline, an impending lawsuit was looming over our efforts like an angry cloud thick with rain.  It was team meeting time.

We reviewed the list of deliverables again to ensure nothing was missed.  There were two ancillary deliverables for this project that had not been discussed in awhile because they were both marked as complete.  Outside, the thunder clapped and a dazzling bolt of lightening lit up the western sky.  I casually mentioned these two deliverables to the group expecting everyone to agree that this work had been completed.

The account manager spoke first.

“Sam, this AB deliverable is complete, isn’t it?”

“I am not sure, Carol.  I did not work on this piece.  I can ask Whitney.”

“David, what about this CD deliverable?  We finished that about 2 months ago, didn’t we?”

“Carol, I remember we had some discussions about it.  But I think we are still waiting on feedback from the data group.”

“You mean it isn’t finished?”

“I don’t think so.”

I had recently inherited this project when the original project manager left our company.  The client was expecting to review the Go Live schedule on our call tomorrow afternoon.  It was obvious that with these two unresolved deliverables, there was no Go Live schedule.

I began making calls and determined the actual status on each deliverable.  It wasn’t as bad as we thought, but neither one was ready to go.  The potential for the impending lawsuit was still strong.

“Carol,” I began, “we can present this to the client in a couple of ways.  One, we can be upfront and tell them what we know and what we are doing to resolve these issues.  Two, we can ask them a few leading questions and see what they remember about each.”

“Dan, let’s be prepared to give them the bad news but let’s start off by asking the leading questions.”

You are never sure how a client will receive news that may affect their Go Live plans.  Our leading questions caused the client to rethink the status on these deliverables for themselves.  They began to question each other about the importance of either deliverable.  It wasn’t much, but it bought us some face and we carefully worked in some details about what we knew.  At the end of the conversation, the client was open to helping us find a resolution for both.  The lawsuit was never mentioned.


Although you never want to hide information from a client, you can be careful about how much you tell them and when, as well as how you present the information.  This conversation could have quickly gone bad if we had brashly indicated the issues upfront and caused ourselves to appear as unprofessional and untrustworthy.  Communicating risk can be very risky.  How have you communicated risk in a risky environment?

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Comment by Dan Vickers on June 7, 2011 at 10:14am
Faith, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment.  I was very fortunate on this project that our leading questions did not backfire.  Honesty is the best policy when it is presented carefully (i.e. do these jeans flatter me?).  You are correct that the best way to avoid this kind of incident is to have a good tracking system and mitigation plan in place.  The carefully worded honest answer to a fault-revealing question is where the skills of a project manager can save a project or relationship.  To me, this is one of the most challenging and most rewarding areas of project management.  Thank you for your feedback.
Comment by Dan Vickers on June 7, 2011 at 9:58am
Diane, I really like your six principles for cooperation and collaboration.  You ask some very good questions.  In a nutshell, what went off track was the communication and the documentation.  Otherwise, we would've known exactly what was needed long before this incident occurred.  Our next focus is to turn project status documentation into a measurable metric.  Thank you for your comments.
Comment by Dan Vickers on June 7, 2011 at 9:51am
William, I always appreciate your insight and your comments.  Thanks for your feedback.
Comment by FAITH KNIGHT on June 6, 2011 at 7:36pm
I'm not sure if I would have taken the same approach. For instance, your leading questions could have backfired had the client had a PM on its end tracking everything; they could have had a comeback such as 'based on our project plan and our notes from our meeting log, you told us the deliverables were xyz and that they would be delivered on xyz date..." I think honesty is the best policy, but even more than that, a good tracking system and mitigation plan is even better.
Comment by Dianne Crampton on June 6, 2011 at 10:51am

Mitigating risk on teams, whether it is through communication or best practices, is one of the six principles we believe are important for installing high levels of cooperation and collaboration on teams. The other 5 are trust, interdependence, genuineness, empathy and success.


I think you point is well made here. I would then ask what your own improvement planning was so that you remained in trustworthy status as a contractor. Did you improve your team's breakdown? How? What went off track? Why? And, did you resolve your own breakdown at its root cause? What changed? How?

Comment by William Pirkey on June 3, 2011 at 12:40pm

Funny you should mention that...

I was the Project Manager for a migration project, with a contractor as the vendor and integrator.  We had realized a risk that would impact the looming cutover date, but the mitigation was our choice--delay implementation of one component.  At the weekly status telecon with the vendor, I had to be very careful NOT to say anything that would imply we wanted to delay cutover of the rest of the infrastructure, despite our previous statements that "everything goes" on the specified date.

The mute button was used a lot as my in-house project team discussed how to best answer those direct questions without releasing the contractor of their obligation!  In the end, they asked how we wanted to migrate that component, and our answer was "we are working on a detailed plan, but we can still migrate everything else".

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