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Who Is Responsible for Declaring that a Project is Troubled?

A colleague who is interested in how best to bring attention to trouble and problems in projects raised these good questions:  “Who is responsible for declaring that a project is in trouble?  Does the organizational culture support open communication or are PM’s being fired or penalized when they bring bad news?”  He added “I am still amazed to this day to hear the stories about PMs being scapegoats on troubled projects even when they are not to blame.”

The easy answer is that it is the PM’s responsibility to make sure that trouble is declared when it exists. The PM is responsible for stakeholder communication in general and project status is one of the most important parts of that communication.   But PMs are only human after all and it is quite common for humans to go into denial when faced with circumstances that are unpleasant or threatening.  There are far too many instances of managers, project managers and even regulators hiding the truth, deluding themselves and others into thinking that no one will find out or that things will somehow get better so there is no reason to alarm anyone with the bleak reality of the moment.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Then there is the blame game.  In Antigone, Sophocles wrote ”No one loves the messenger who brings bad news”.

When a messenger is “shot” because the recipient doesn’t like the message, there is a systemic problem in the organization. Over time, PMs will learn to not give bad news and effective management will suffer.  With people afraid to be the bearer of bad news the bad news gets hidden and trouble festers until it becomes too great to contain and too great to do anything about besides stopping the project.

What to do?

Take a long term, process improvement view.  It is best to create a dialog across the management chain to bring out the issue of blame, fear and the lack of candor they create.  Seek to change management attitudes and policies and to establish a reporting/project monitoring and control approach that “automatically” brings attention to trouble. This is easy to say but not so easy to do in a dysfunctional environment.

Rather than thinking that it is the PMs job to always break the bad news, hopefully we can agree that it is the responsibility of the PM to set up and use a system that delivers the news, good or bad, regularly and objectively.  With a reporting system that is rationally structured with clear criteria for setting red, yellow and green indictors at activity and project  levels there is no need for the news bearer to be brave or suicidal.  The system bears the news and the people who receive it (who hopefully have bought into the system and its criteria) are faced with the responsibility of responding to it.

Responding to bad news is easier than announcing it.  But, that is a topic for another time.  For now, assess the way you and your organization accepts bad news.  Is news of trouble seen as “bad” or is it seen as useful information that can then be used for effective analysis, decision making and corrective action?  If it is seen as bad, then you would do well to change that perception.  If it is seen as useful, congratulate yourselves and get on with figuring out how to manage the situation and how to avoid trouble in the future.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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