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How to Give Bad News to Your Project Sponsor

What happened the last time your project was hit by major problem? Did you have to update your project sponsor? Were you apprehensive about it?

Nobody likes reporting bad news, especially when your sponsor is part of upper management. Part of this is the reaction that you get. A bad delivery could damage your reputation, affect your team′s standing, and possibly change the level of support your project sponsor′s willing to give. If the situation is really bad, it could even affect your job security.

But there is a way to give bad news that keeps your head on your shoulders.

Speak directly and honestly

Don′t talk around the point, and don′t hedge. This wastes your and your sponsor′s time, and will only make him madder. He trusts you (right now, anyway), and dissembling will only damage that faith.

Be direct and to the point, instead. Give it to him straight, because that′s the only way he′ll be able to help you come up with solutions.

Separate Facts and Suspicions

Do you know why the project is failing, or are you making assumptions? Giving your suspicions to the project sponsor is a very slippery slope. It′s easy to get carried away with your opinions–especially if they′re biased–and influence the issue in the wrong way.

For example, if a website went down, do you know for sure that it was human error and not infrastructure problems? If you fire your IT manager based on your suspicions, and you find out later it was technical problems, you′ll never be able to hire the guy back.

Don′t Lay Blame

There are many reasons not to lay blame in a crisis: accuracy, ethics, professionalism–but the biggest reason you should keep in mind is: it doesn′t help the project in any way. You′re spending all that energy and brain space pinning a problem on somebody else when there′s bigger fish to fry.

Focus on solving the problem. You can hold people accountable after the project is done.

Have Contingencies in Hand

Do you want to know the best way to appease your project sponsor after giving him bad news? Plan out your next moves and explain why they are good options to consider.

This shows your sponsor that you′re being proactive about the issue and not waiting for everything to fall down on top of the team. If need be, the sponsor will be happy (or at least willing) to brainstorm better solutions or get you the resources to make it happen.

So the next time you give bad news to your project sponsor, keep the above tips in mind. Be honest, be accurate, be professional, and be thorough. And maybe you′ll come out of that situation smelling like roses.


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