Bad news doesn’t get better with age: Share your project challenges early

- January 2024

One of the best pieces of advice I have received in my career was “there are no good surprises in government.” This is true in the private sector too. Good surprises exist in our personal lives, but even then, often not. For example, I have never thought marriage proposals at public events to be a great surprise idea.

Project management is inherently designed to avoid surprises. Project controls such as risk management, cost estimation and scheduling all have this goal in mind. We don’t use project management to be surprised by things – quite the opposite.

Why then do we see issues arise in projects that should have been identified and managed early to avoid the unfortunate surprise of things going wrong? While sometimes risks are known, accepted and then realised, this is not really a surprise (although it may be presented as such by media outlets looking to write a good story about project failures).

The failure to share project challenges early is largely a cultural problem driven by a desire to appear as if everything is under control, no need to panic, aligned to an “I can fix it” mentality and a fear that raising problems will have senior managers question one’s competence.

While some management cultures have a tendency to shoot messengers and punish anyone bringing bad news, the fear of this is far greater than the reality in my experience. Problems presented early, with solid evidence and options for addressing them, is usually something welcomed by senior management.

It is also important to recognise that while as a project manager you may not see a way to resolve an issue, more senior managers will typically have other levers and greater ability to address blockers to success. It is important to give them the opportunity to use these levers given their reputation is also often at stake. Denying them this chance will typically create a bigger problem for you than the issue of concern.

The good news for project managers is that you should have the training and the tools to present risks and issues in a timely manner as well as mitigation options and good decision support. The main challenge is having the courage to do so.

But what of the circumstance when risks and project traffic lights are changed from red to a more pleasing colour as they move up the reporting chain? Most of us will have seen or heard of this occurring, and it is also a sign of a poor management culture. There are four things I would recommend in this situation:

1. Undertake an honest assessment of whether the issue of concern is as significant as your initial assessment, including seeking a range of opinions as assurance.

2. If you have assured yourself that the issue is indeed significant, continue to raise it formally through risk reviews, reporting etc.

3. If the issue is still not being addressed, the risk has essentially been accepted. Time to accept you have done your best and proceed with the project (although keep reporting it!).

4. If you cannot accept this situation, move on to another project.

by Brendhan Egan, Principal