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The Sick and Twisted and Evil Truth of Project Transparency

I saw this funny cartoon of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leah getting a Father’s Day card for their dad – Darth Vader.

It reads “You’re sick and twisted and evil, but you’re still our dad!” Wow! What honesty and transparency.

Darth Vader fathers day card

What came to mind afterwards in terms of managing a project (because you know… everything eventually comes back around to leading projects) was the idea of complete transparency on the project. I believe in it and I think anything short of complete transparency is likely to only cause problems. But can we sometimes be too honest? Can we be too transparent? Should we try to fix the problem first and then go to the client? After all, don’t we want to avoid delivering bad news to the project customer at almost all costs?

The answers to all those questions are no, no, no and no. We really can’t be too honest. We really can’t be too transparent. We should not try to fix the problem first. What if it takes a long time and they find out about the issue through other means and contact or CEO to complain? You’ll wish you would have had that sit down with the customer to update him on the issue long before that happened, right? And no, we do not want to avoid delivering bad news to the customer at almost all costs. It’s their project, their money and they can sometimes provide great input into the solution or workaround to get back on track. Involve them in the decision process.

It’s not always fun being honest and transparent with your project client. Good news is great, but you know that’s not what I’m talking about here. So how do we go about the process of relaying the bad news and working with the project client to move forward. I’m not going to come up with any specific scenarios – rather we will just consider concepts that drive planning, discussion, decision making and implementation of a chosen resolution. Consider these…

Fully identify the problem.

First – again… if there is time and don’t take too much of it – gather the full project team or as many of them as possible and discuss the problem or issues being encountered. Look for the root cause – is it the technology, a requirements issue, a software performance issue? Figure out what is going on as much as you possibly can so that you can productively discuss and hopefully come up with some resolution scenarios to eventually present to the project customer. Let’s move on to the next step.

Quickly come up with 2-3 resolution scenarios to present.

You need to go to the project client as quickly as possible, but it’s also usually best if you can present some solution options with the bad news. It definitely softens the blow and keeps customer confidence in the project performance and delivery team high. It shows fast action and dedication to the project as well as accountability as the true leader of the project initiative. Narrow it down to a couple of options, if possible, and be ready to take them to the client next to discuss how to proceed.

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Contact the customer.

This must all happen within just a few hours of problem discovery. We are not talking days or even a week here. If it’s going to go much beyond that to ballpark the problem and potential solution scenarios, then you must immediately contact the customer. If you take too long, you risk the customer finding out from someone other than the project manager – and that is never a good thing. If the customer doesn’t find out from the project manager, they can quickly lose confidence and be suspicious of project activity going forward. Once you’ve lost that customer confidence, it is never easy to get it back. So quickly reach out to the customer, present the issue along with the resolution or workaround options you have devised with the project team and discuss with the customer to decide which path to take or which solution to implement.

Implement the chosen solution or workaround.

I know just saying “implement” makes it all sound easier than it ever really is. It’s like those flowcharts that have a box that says “something happens” and it works. Sure. But seriously, you can’t take long and with the customer by your side you work through the few scenarios you present and jointly come up with a plan of action. Draw up any change orders necessary – if the problem was created on your end, you’ll probably need to eat the resolution work for free. Now, with confidence, move forward with the chosen solution and work through the problem or issues. If it doesn’t work, then rinse and repeat.

Summary / call for input

Bad news is never fun to share. Whether the problem is on the delivery side, the customer side or somewhere in between – it doesn’t matter. What is important is transparency and fast action. Be honest and upfront with your project client and be fast to deliver the news. But it is equally important that you try to present the solution or some options to discuss when bringing the bad news. It will show rapid response, and it will soften the blow of the bad news you are relaying. Issues happen – on every project. But you always need a team plan on how you’re going to respond to issues when they come up in order to avoid or mitigate most of the damage… quickly. And never take too long to include the customer. They will find out – and it needs to be from the project manager and team, not from someone on their own staff or from your CEO. Not if you want your company tenure to be long and prosperous.

Brad Egeland

Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. He has been named the “#1 Provider of Project Management Content in the World” with over 7,000 published articles, eBooks, white papers and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

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