Friday, March 8, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: Get a handle on yourself first

Almost everyone wants to write a book until they really start writing it. That's me - I'm actually writing two: A nonfiction and a novel. 

For many years I've had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people in corporations and government agencies around the world. They have shared their stories and concerns with me in a search of solutions to very real problems. Interestingly, the problems they face are less about the mechanics of work and more about the human side of getting work done. In response I've made a concerted effort to learn and share as many facts, best practices, and processes as possible in a effort to address the behavioral aspects of their work that chew up much of their day. 

Now I'm finally doing it, and it is just as daunting, tedious, and scary as I thought it would be. I'm soldiering on despite knowing I'll have scores of revisions before the final product is finished.

The title of the nonfiction book is Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun whether it's in your professional or personal life. Some people don't have an issue with delivering bad news, and that's fantastic. I'd love to hear about your approach and technique. But there are those of us who do have a harder time sharing and responding to bad news. These are the people I hope this book will help.

Over the years I've experimented with an approach that is the foundation of this book. In an effort to get your response and feedback, I thought I'd start publishing pieces of the book chapters here. Writing can be a lonely endeavor so I'm looking forward to sharing the journey with you. 

Here's a segment of Chapter 5 which addresses the "Separate" step in a model I call SED.  SED stands for Separate, Evaluate, and Deliver. I look forward to your comments either here or via email.

Separate: How you do it

Maybe you’ve experienced a situation like one of the following:

Your project sponsor has significantly reduced your funding but still expects the same scope.

A major issue discovered during testing will require an additional three months work which will impact the critical due date. Oh, and by the way, in anticipation that project would wrap up on time, you’ve already started ramping up management of a new and even larger project!

Two primary project stakeholders can’t seem to get aligned on a solution for a crucial part of system build. The situation has eroded quickly and now they are refusing to work together.

You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the mandate.

Change is a reality on projects. I’ve always said I would love for a plan to be etched in stone right out of the gate, but we all know that’s not possible. There are simply too many variables and unknowns so in the spirit of Rolling Wave Planning we lay out the plan to the best of our ability and then respond and make adjustments to new information along the way.

The management part of this is using processes to collect, integrate, and distribute information and work requirements. There are are many fine publications that illustrate in detail the processes that support this. I’ve listed recommendations for these publications in the Appendix section of this book should you like to explore them further.

What is not necessarily covered in equivalent detail is how to assess, respond, and manage the emotional experience of change on the stakeholders (and you). Because bad news is likely the result of a change, we’ll break down the parts of the SED model to help you be more effective with assessing, responding, and managing the emotional experience of it.

Step 1 of Separate: Define the situation/event
Bad news is on the table: Now what?

To put a new spin on an old quote, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine," but for the sake of project management let’s make a slight adjustment:

To err is human; to separate and sort before responding, divine.

When we first become aware of a situation or event, it’s natural to jump right into a bunch of assumptions.  It is even more natural to make one of those assumptions your conclusion before you’ve fully assessed the situation. This is just the way the mind works - we use mental models to quickly assess and respond to the situation at hand.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our mind is constantly sifting through tons of information in an effort to make sense of the environment and experiences around us. The human brain likes order and will work very hard to create it as soon as possible. It’s important to understand the following:

"Context is the reality of the situation around us. Without context, our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts & recognize patterns that aren't really there. We connect the dots without first collecting the dots." From the book The Mission, the Men, and Me

The upside of this is that it enables us to rapidly respond to a variety of situations, to innovate, and to create. The downside of this is we make a ton of assumptions that miss the mark. As a matter of fact, research shows 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are correct, but here’s the rub: 50 to 60 percent of the time those assumptions are NOT correct.

Hmmm...time for a reality check, you say? Yep, you’re a quick one. :)

Let’s take a look at how that process works.

Making sense of information

Maybe you’re standing around the airport gate waiting to board your plane and a interesting person catches your eye.

Perhaps you’ve just been named project manager of a project that’s been in progress for several months. You steal a quick glance at the team before getting down to business.

You’re at a networking event and you see someone who looks like a person you met before. You walk up and introduce yourself, but suddenly realize this isn’t the same person.

What’s happening in your head during the initial moment of those situations? In what seems like an instant, thoughts creep up into your consciousness. You might reflexively make a statement about the person in your head, and then counter that thought with an “Oh, where did that impression come from?” Possibly you simply react without any forethought. Hopefully there’s no fallout from that potential “uh-oh” moment which is where you act on the thought without thinking about it.

So, how long do you think an instant is if you quantified it? Perhaps you’re thinking it is only a few minutes or several seconds.

What’s going on with your reflexive response? Maybe your response is that you “just know” or it’s “intuition.”

How can you form an impression of someone else so quickly? Where does it come from? Perhaps you simply assume that being on the planet and having a variety of experiences just gives you license to make quick decisions and conclusions without vetting them.

If any of those responses rolled through your head you’re not far off, but as with most things, there is a process we naturally follow.

In the next post, I'll address The thinking (and feeling) process explained which will address the process we following.

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