Delivering Bad News

If you are running an offshore IT engagement you have faced bad news a few times by now. Not? Chances are you will soon. I am not being all gloom and doom; it’s just the nature of the beast. As a matter of fact working in IT guarantees that you will be facing bad news, offshore just expedites the matters. This post is not as much about offshore as about bad news in general –how to deliver them and how to receive.

The first thing to keep in mind whether you have to deliver bad news or are receiving them is that a bad news is like a turn in a road: it’s not the end of the road, unless you failed to make the turn.

Let’s start with delivery. Chances are that applies more to offshore providers. Internally offshore vendors face many challenges – delivery against insane deadlines, working with mediocre workforce, turn over, and so on. These issues are not much different from those most technology organizations face independently from their location. I do not often hear about over-budgeted and overstaffed projects or unusually loose timeframes. The challenges create issues, some of the issues are mishandled, and sooner or later mishandled issues materialize into a problem that becomes a bad news to be delivered to the customer.

The time of beheading bad news bears has passed yet I guess it’s deeply imbedded in our psyche. Not many of us enjoy delivering bad news, especially when it’s personal. BTW, that is an additional complication for many of the offshore providers as the ties between personal and business relationships in many of the offshore countries has been exceptionally strong for centuries and switching to “it’s just business” attitude is not an easy transformation.

To deal with a challenging transformation you need a methodology. I suggest the one I heard from my sailing buddy. He told me that every task on a boat includes three stages – Prepare, Execute, and Cleanup.

That is exactly what you should do to deliver a bad news:

Prepare. That is the most involved and the most important part of the process. The better it is executed the easier it is to deliver the news.

  • Get all the facts, supporting materials, and paper trail together. Organize your materials in a manner you can quickly access what you need.
  • List all questions you can anticipate and make sure you have answers and supporting materials for each.
  • Pick the best individual(s) to deliver the news. Your choice should be based on many aspects of the business relationship and in particular personnel aspects such as roles, hierarchy, and personality.
  • Identify potential outcomes and develop action plans for handling each one of them. You should have a proposed solution or several of them rated by your preference prior to arriving in front of your client. Few things would go worse in such situation than a “we got a problem” followed by a blank stare.
  • Decide on the approach / delivery techniques. This step should be based in a large degree on the items above and the gravity of the issue.

Execute. Aim for making this step as brief and concise as it could possibly be; there more you dwell on the problem the deeper it gets.

  • Deliver the news in a manner dictated by your selected technique / approach (see more notes below).
  • Provide your partner with information they may need. Suggest possible solution / proposed plan.
  • Define action plans and the next steps.

Cleanup. …unless you failed to make the turn… Your actions in the clean up stage are those final movements you need to exit a sharp turn gracefully.

  • Send follow up note / meeting notes / action plans / next steps / etc. to the client.
  • Follow through on each item of the action plan.
  • Follow up with the client to keep them abreast with the recovery progress.

There are many techniques you can deploy in the execution phase. Most famous are known as Punch in a Face, Love Sandwich, and Spinning (it also has a similar, more popular yet less appealing name).

Punch in a Face, delivering bad news without any sugarcoating, despite of its “straight shooter” appeal is a very delicate technique. It should not be used with people who take things personally or emotionally. More so even cold-blooded IT executives that never take anything personal may still prefer some cushion when it comes to very hard news. If you elect this approach make sure to deliver the news in the most concise manner and quickly move on to resolution plans, action items and next steps.

Love Sandwich works well with majority of situations and audiences. The idea behind it is quite simple: in order create a Love Sandwich place the bad news between two layers of “love”. The “love” could be an indication of commitment, general positive reinforcement, good news, etc. This technique is particular successful if information in love portions of the sandwich is relevant to the bad news. It is also important to make sure that love portions outweigh the negative filling.

Spinning is a very complex technique that requires mastery of word, sharp whit, above average diplomatic skills and has dubious results. Presenting a bad news as a good news is likely to be interpreted by an intelligent person as desperate attempt to avoid responsibility. If you measure spin in degrees (180 would be an ultimate spin presenting “bad” as “good”) I would strongly recommend never going being 45 degrees – presenting some “bad” news as “not too bad” one.

One item worth in-depth discussion is “anti-techniques”, the approaches one can use to exacerbate the problem instead of softening the blow. It’s amazing how often I have seen those while working with my offshore providers. My dear distinguished bad news bears, please never do the following:

  • Rush. Never hurry through the process. Rushing through the preparation will leave you vulnerable at the delivery point. Dashing through the execution stage is likely to leave client with impression that you are trying to dodge the subject. Speeding through the cleanup stage will put you back on the same track with a new bad news.
  • Procrastinate. The problem will not go away and with time the bad news is likely only get worse.
  • Overwhelm with excuses. As Brian Tracy put it “A disease of excusitis, inflammation of excuse making gland, is fatal for success.”
  • Announce your technique. Funny enough I heard it quite a few times – “Nick, I gotta tell you: we are in deep troubles, but let me put a spin on it…” What a silly thing to say, do you expect me enjoy watching your exercise in spinning techniques? And how does it alleviate the problem I have to deal with?
  • Use preemptive announcements. “Hey Nick, I have a good news and a bad news. Which one would you like to hear first?” I do not want to hear bad news to begin with. I do not want any bad news.
  • Use “preparers”. A technique commonly used by snake oil sales people: “Nick, I got a very bad news… our coffeemaker’s broken.” most of the time that means that the next thing will be a “not such a bad news” like “the car you came here to buy is $5K more expensive than our ad in a paper stated”. This technique is well known and chances are it will only irritate you partner.
  • Give the bad news first. If you do have a bad and a good news never, never, never give the bad news first. It will upset your partner or put him / her / them in some other irrational state. Your good news will not get enough attention. Starting on a bad note is a sure recipe for failure.
  • Change your techniques in the process. Just think about how you feel or what you think about a driver that indicates that you can pass and then cuts you off, puts a right blinker on and then turns left… Besides irritating the client, changing techniques greatly convolutes the message leaving your partner with feeling that the only thing you brought to the table was a bunch of excuses.
  • Lie. You can spin, omit some gory details, sugarcoat the message but deliver the facts. Unless you have absolutely no choice avoid lying to your clients. The value delivered by lies is typically transient the liability is huge and ripple effect could be devastating.

Let us switch to a short discussion of receiving a bad news. Unfortunately, that is something all of us have to deal with independently on what side of the table we are. Let’s use the same sailing technique – Prepare, Execute, and Cleanup.

Prepare. In this case “Prepare” has a very special meaning. Consider sailing a boat in strong winds; suddenly in a middle of a turn one of the shrouds (shrouds are steel cables that hold the mast up from side to side) snaps. That is a very bad news, which could mean broken mast and many other bad events to follow. The first step you need to take (and in this example immediately) is to get the control of the situation and prepare for your next steps. Get in control of the boat.

When you hear a bad news the worst thing you can do is to get emotional. Do not react – respond. You may elect to show your frustration to the partner and even appear emotional. As a matter of fact there is something to be said about doing it on purpose (consider it an exercise in Golden Rule of Haggling #6). It is through extremely important to keep your head cool. Just consider what Chesley Sullenberger had to do to ditch his plane in the Hudson River saving all 155 people on-board. Get control of the plane preparing to use remaining resources to execute a maneuver that you have never tried live. Fortunately in IT Outsourcing world our challenges typically do not put us under as much pressure and give us enough time to prepare.

Execute. Execution stage is very straightforward and may involve digesting the bad news, options, outcomes, etc. You may elect to brainstorm with your partner, or take their input and do brainstorming internally. One thing is important to consider. You do not have to make any decisions, agree on action plans, etc. right one the spot. More so it is better to do it after you had a chance to digest the news, go through what-if analysis, decide on your preferred actions and when you are not emotionally affected by the news or the presence of the partner.

Cleanup. This stage depends in a large degree on what you decided to do. It may vary from just simple follow up to termination of the engagement.

Wow, that ended-up to be a very long post and I have not even covered the most important aspect – how to minimize the probability that you have to deal with a bad news delivery. I guess I will put it in another post some time soon.

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