tools and factors to consider when delivering news to stakeholders
A “project emergency” is a relative term that has different meaning to individual stakeholders. It can be the slippage of a project by one day to the catastrophic failure of a mega project worth billions of dollars. This paper provides an overview of project management tools associated with risk management and communication management to help project managers and team members deliver bad news. Elements of communication and risk management are integrated to understand the context of the situation, identifying who needs to know, when they need to know, how and who is best to deliver information.
Stakeholder Management—The Way Things Are
How do many project managers “manage” stakeholders?
The answer to this lies primarily in the nature of the project (e.g., its size, location, proximity of stakeholders, etc.), the budget (how much funding is there to pay for the time needed to manage stakeholders), the experience of the project manager, and the maturity of the organization (i.e., with or without processes in place to easily and effectively manage stakeholders).
Project managers often identify and classify stakeholders using a spreadsheet similar to that shown in Exhibit 1.
Exhibit 1. Typical Project Stakeholder Register
Exhibit 1 is often the stopping point for stakeholder management. In other words, a table has been constructed and it's placed in a communication plan where it fits comfortably as an appendix or as a predecessor to a communication matrix. The communication matrix is often developed using a spreadsheet to list meetings and recurring emails or updates to some or all stakeholders as shown in Exhibit 2. They often become “paper” in a binder.
It is the next step in stakeholder management where inexperienced project managers or immature organizations need training and improvement to gain the benefit of assessing stakeholders to drive project communications. As seen in Exhibits 1 and 2, there lacks connectivity between stakeholder assessment and stakeholder communications. In many projects, status reporting and other types of project communications are distributed to all stakeholders regardless of the classification/assessment conducted during project initiation when the stakeholder register was developed.
Exhibit 2. Communications Matrix (Project Manaagement Docs, n.d.)
Stakeholder Management—The Way Things Could Be
Assessing stakeholders (Project Management Institute, 2008) along with their management under routine and crisis conditions (Kerzner, 2009) has been well documented. The use of power-interest is a simple yet good technique of classifying stakeholders, particularly key stakeholders, who are associated with a project. Power is generally defined as “possession of control, authority, or influence over” a project (Power, n.d.). Interest is “a feeling that accompanies or causes special attention to” (Interest, n.d.) a project or the outcome of the project.
Exhibit 3. Power-Interest Diagram (adapted from Figure 10-4, Project Management Institute, 2008).
Exhibit 3 illustrates the classification of stakeholders in a power-interest diagram and how they could be approached in terms of project communications. By enhancing a project stakeholder register (Exhibit 4) with additional considerations, a robust power-interest diagram (Exhibit 5) can be used to drive the type and frequency of communication for classes of stakeholders rather than a laissez-faire communication matrix the sends the same information to all stakeholders regardless of their interest or power in the project.
Exhibit 4. Enhanced Project Stakeholder Register
Further, by understanding nature of the stakeholder (resistant versus supportive), and their power-interest in the project, the project manager can seek ways to transform the resistant stakeholder to neutral or supportive.
Exhibit 5 Robust Power-Interest Diagram
In a recent project by a services division of one of the world's largest software companies, enhanced stakeholder management using adaptations to Exhibits 4 and 5 led the project manager to conclude
While this information is typically known or suspected to be the case, we previously did not create a visual representation. This simple diagram was influential during the development of our other planning artifacts and reminded us to consider stakeholders we may have previously ignored. The P-I grid was submitted to ‘redacted' for possible inclusion and worldwide distribution. (Saich, 2012, p. 21)
Understanding the Context of the Situation
The context of the situation is critically important when determining if a situation warrants routine communication or crisis response. The urgency to deliver news is a function of the impact of the situation on the project and is described in Exhibit 6.
Exhibit 6: Information Assessment Relationships for Delivering Bad News
The urgency to deliver news is a function of the impact if may have on the project. As the impact increases, so does the urgency to deliver news to key stakeholders. In a catastrophic situation, crisis communication should be clear and quick. For example, if an oil rig off the coast has a catastrophic failure (i.e., an explosion) that cripples the platform or collapses entirely, the crisis communication response to stakeholders is immediate and often beyond the control of the project manager. Conversely, if a contaminated site has monitoring wells that show a gradual increase in the concentration of the contaminant approaching a site boundary, it could be months or years before the levels breach the site boundary. Is that bad news that requires urgent delivery to key stakeholders? At what point, however, does information meet the threshold for assessment such that it requires notification? For each project and for each key stakeholder, the threshold is different. The threshold for bad news is a sliding scale on the urgency-impact relationship.
During the planning phase, as well as earlier during project initiation, the tolerance by stakeholders for risks should be addressed during the development of the risk management plan. During risk identification, conceivable events that can have impacts are identified and presented to key stakeholders. Their review and approval of the risk management plan is the point of the project at which they understand the risks and how the management response is aligned with tolerance for risk in determining residual risks.
The principal criteria for a valid Risk Management Plan are acceptance by the stakeholders, alignment with the internal and external constraints on the project, balance between cost or effort and benefit, and completeness with respect to the needs of the Project Risk Management process.
Section 4.2, Practice Standard for Project Risk Management (2009, p. 21)
Four Major Considerations for Delivering Bad News to Stakeholders
As knowledge of risks are identified and dealt with to the satisfaction of key stakeholders, there can be events that generate an “emergency” in the view of the project manager or other team members internal to the project organization. Once the context of the situation is understood, four major considerations need to be addressed. These include:
- Who needs to know?
- When do they need to know?
- How best to communication a project emergency?
- Who best to communicate a project emergency?
Who Needs to Know?
Everyone? Limited to Key Stakeholders? Limited to the Project Sponsor? There is no such thing as a universally correct answer to this question. Just as each project is different, so is the context of the situation for a project emergency. Senior project managers are often guided by their experience from success and failure in past projects. They understand the second and third order effects resulting from the release of bad news to stakeholders of a project. They also have a clear understanding of the culture (and politics) of the organization or project environment. Junior project managers do not have the luxury of experience so it is critically important that a chain of communication, either formal or informal, be developed during the planning phase of the project and codified in the communication plan.
Exhibit 7 illustrates relationships between the project, the project team and the project stakeholders. It is important to remember that project team members are a subset of project stakeholders and should be included in the stakeholder register.
Exhibit 7: Project, Project Team, and Project Stakeholder Relationships (Project Management Institute, 2008)
A communication plan should contain “the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, distribution, storage, retrieval, and ultimate disposition of project information” (Project Management Institute, 2008). Emphasis in the planning phase should include a process that is agreed to by stakeholders that addresses the disposition of project information. As illustrated in Exhibit 7, the project sponsor is often the link between the project team and the balance of the stakeholders. The project sponsor is ideally someone who has sufficient experience and savvy to understand the context of the situation and be a source of leadership for the project manager to rely upon when addressing a project emergency. For projects delivering internally to an organization, the sponsor and the project manager should meet as soon as information has been identified as requiring immediate (perceived or otherwise) attention. For projects delivering externally from an organization, it is wise to expand the core decision-making group to include the interface with the client (e.g., client manager) and for some projects the client liaison.
When Do They Need to Know?
Immediately? Within 24 hours? Before the next major milestone or project event? Using the earlier example, the time to notify key stakeholders of issues with a contaminated site remediation issue may not be as urgent as a catastrophic failure of a platform oil rig. The urgency to deliver news of a project emergency is primarily a function of the context of the situation and the time remaining before the next event (or set of events) that has (or have) a start-finish relationship with the event impacted by the current emergency. The context of the situation may be such that an immediate response is required. In such circumstances, having a communication plan that addresses project crisis actions allows the project manager to follow standard operating procedures that have previously been agreed to by key project stakeholders and should be reflective of the stakeholder analysis. Exhibit 8 illustrates the qualitative consideration of time before the next related event and the urgency to deliver bad news to key stakeholders.
Exhibit 8 Relationship between Urgency to Deliver News vs. Time to Next Related Event
Rarely does bad news get better with time. However, there are circumstances where a project emergency does lend itself to deliberate response planning and the development of solutions that can be presented to key stakeholders. Most key stakeholders want solutions when emergencies occur. Bring solutions, not problems.
How Best to Communicate a Project Emergency?
Appreciating the each project is different and the stakeholders are often different, the best way to communicate a project emergency or bad news will be different. Selecting the appropriate and effective mode(s) of communication in the modern age is primarily a function of the individual stakeholder, their physical location, and the urgency to distribute the information.
The earlier discussion on stakeholder assessment and classification details a method for understanding the needs of informational needs of the stakeholder, appreciating their ability to influence the project, and their support or resistance to the objectives of the project.
Modes of communication include postal service (i.e., snail mail), email, SMS (text messaging), verbal (telephone), verbal and video (teleconferencing), and face-to-face. Understanding the project stakeholder can mean the difference between the message being received or the message languishing. There only guaranteed mode of communication is face-to-face. All other modes rely on technology or the stakeholder to accept receipt of the news. Some stakeholders can only be reached by SMS. As part of the stakeholder register, collection of information on how best to contact in a project emergency can save a lot of time if the urgency to deliver the information requires that it be done quickly.
Who Best to Deliver Bad News of a Project Emergency?
Is it the project manager? Not necessarily. It's often thought the project manager is the “go to” person for all project leadership and communication issues. While this is true in most circumstances, it is not universally true. This primarily depends on the context of the situation, the key stakeholder, the business rules in place project communications, and the relationship between the individual communicating the message and the receiver.
The decision on who best to deliver bad news about a project emergency is often best decided by the project manager in close consultation with the project sponsor (internal projects) and possibly the client manager (external projects) when there is time to discuss the best path forward.
Most project leadership roles are picked to ensure a successful outcome to a project. However, there are occasions when the stress of the project or other issues can, over time, erode the friendly relationships between project manager and some of the stakeholders of the project. This reinforces the needed for a thorough stakeholder analysis to ensure that adequate due diligence is considered when determining project communication relationships.
It is not outside the realm of possibility that over the course of the project the affable relationship between the project manager and certain key stakeholders can become strained. In these circumstances, it's wise to pause momentarily can consider who is the best person to deliver news so that the receiver remains objective when they receive it.
Project emergencies that require bad news be disseminated to stakeholders is something most, if not all, project managers will deal with during their careers. The planning phase of a project provides the project manager an opportunity to lay the groundwork to effectively handle project emergencies. Identifying risks and determining the key stakeholder tolerances for risk will ensure that everyone has an understanding of how risks will be managed. Developing a communication plan driven by a robust stakeholder assessment that includes some standard operating procedures when a crisis (i.e., catastrophic events) occurs ensures that key stakeholders agree to the communication processes. Finally, when project emergencies do occur, the project manager should consult the project sponsor and work through the integration of understanding the context of the situation, identifying who needs to know, when they need to know it, and how best to deliver the news.
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© 2012, Scott C. Wright, Ph.D., P.E., PMP
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, British Columbia