Why Don’t Managers Want Bad News?

“What do we want?”

“Courageous management!

“When do we want it?”

“Now! Errmm…? Where have they gone…?”

Bad news. It’s not easy to deliver it or receive it. No-one really wants to do either, but it’s part of working in any organisation, at all levels.

Sometimes, things go better than expected. Work is finished early, the costs came in under budget and we delivered to specification. Everyone’s happy, everyone wants to talk about it. More often, unfortunately, things go wrong.

  • It might be the fault of someone directly involved – they made a mistake, got things wrong, took longer than they should have, overspent, whatever.
  • It might be down to an external supplier – a delivery was late, a company went bust, perhaps they delivered the wrong part.
  • External circumstances intervened – a competitor got there first, legislation forced a change in the requirements, there was shortage of materials.

Some of these can be forecast and, perhaps, mitigation put in place. With others it’s not so easy. However, while we may we may not be able to predict everything that may go wrong, we can be sure that something will go wrong.

Practically any management survey regarding projects indicates that a large percentage of projects are delivered late or over budget (try entering ‘how many projects are late?’ into a search engine).

HEALTH WARNING: Yes, of course they are – if you don’t deliver exactly on time, then projects will be either early or late. The percentage delay or overspend is a better indication of impact.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen. And nor should our senior managers.

In fact, they should be hunting bad news, because good managers understand that things will go wrong. The more we can plan for this, the better decisions managers are able to make, the chances of us fixing things increase, delivery improves, we all benefit. Simples.

As a consequence, there are a few fundamental things that need to be in place.

  • Visibility of all the work that you’re being asked to deliver
    • If managers are not aware of the total demand, how can they possibly understand the impact of delays, overspends etc.?
  • Visibility of all the resources that are being used for delivery and how much time they realistically have available
    • Again, if you don’t have a clear view of your supply capability, how do you know what options you may have?
    • Whatever the work that your people are doing (Agile, Waterfall, BAU, training etc.), a clear view of their available capacity is critical to understanding your choices.
  • An agreed method of prioritisation
    • This can be tricky; I’ll not pretend otherwise. However, it is important that you do it, or you will reach the position where ‘who shouts loudest’ is the most important – this will not help you or your organisation. Why work so hard on developing your strategic goals if you’re then going to ignore them when the going gets tough…?
    • Deciding the method off-line, in calm circumstances with logical, sensible consideration, is more likely to provide a solid framework for decision-making than arguments developed in the heat of battle.
  • A means of planning alternative scenarios
    • This is vital. If a potential problem is recognised (Risk Management…) but you don’t plan for that problem before it happens, then everything is a surprise, decisions are made in haste without any understanding of the implications.
  • Open-mindedness
    • There will probably be more than one ‘right’ answer. There’s risk associated with making a choice and there are times that you, or your management will be wrong.
  • Tenacity
    • Yes, things will continue to go wrong – check out the Third law of Thermodynamics. Fixing things once is unlikely to fix them completely. You will need to revisit the scenarios, adjust the parameters, challenge the assumptions.
If you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space
- Stephen Hunt

We’re generally over-optimistic, because we want to succeed, to be positive, to encourage. Continual identification and communication of bad news is the way that successful organisations should run. However, recognition, delivery and receipt of bad news should be recognised and celebrated, because it means that we’re trying, we’re innovating, we’re seeking to improve the way that things are done.

I think that may be what we’re there for.

Sandhill explored how to manage demand and capacity within a dynamic operation in our recent webinar.

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