At some point in their careers, most creative professionals have to relay bad news or project updates to their team, boss, or clients. Many people tend to put off these conversations in hopes that the situation improves or goes away entirely. In most cases, this is a naive ambition. Most bad situations are only made better by a timely and frank conversation.
This article will explore lessons I’ve learned over my years of leading crucial, high-budget projects for numerous clients. It will highlight times where simply taking the time to properly set expectations would have vastly improved the success of a project, the happiness of my client, and the stress levels of my team.
Don’t avoid topics—face them head on
It’s human nature to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. It’s equally human nature to want to be liked and respected by our colleagues. Therefore, it’s no wonder that when things aren’t going well, our initial reaction is often to avoid, downplay, or deny painful topics altogether. If a project is behind schedule, over budget, or just not going as anticipated, it can be incredibly difficult to earnestly discuss the situation. This will inevitably result in an even worse scenario, however, leading to much more discomfort and a diminishment of trust.
As the person ultimately responsible for a deliverable, it is selfish, hugely detrimental, and ultimately self-damaging to not be open about known problems. As this article will further explore, it is tremendously important that these tendencies be corrected.
Identify everyone involved and inform them
When considering a situation like this, it’s important to consider all of ramifications of a project not going as planned. We often understand how problems impact ourselves, our teams, and our primary point of contacts, but remember, there are typically many others who are affected as well. For example, if a project’s completion is meant to coincide with a marketing effort, any project delays could render those campaigns completely useless. Very few assignments exist in a vacuum and unexpected issues often have a wide-ranging impact. This means that by not being honest with all stakeholders, a situation could be made markedly worse and the negative ramifications made more widespread.
In almost all projects, there are other parties that will make plans based on the expectations provided. By remaining silent or providing unrealistically optimistic estimates, you can negatively impact more than just your immediate team or client.
By identifying all immediate and secondary stakeholders early in the project process and by providing honest, complete, and regular updates it is possible to limit the impact of project delays or challenges.
Learn to be realistic instead of overly optimistic
Another common pitfall for many in this situation is to continually provide overly optimistic updates in an attempt to get things back on track. More often than not, these updates are also inaccurate and simply result in further frustration for all parties.
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Instead, use these updates as an opportunity to reestablish realistic expectations. It is much better to have a single unpleasant conversation that resets the project based on negative results, rather than having an ongoing series of such conversations. The sooner this communication can occur in the process, the better it will make all parties feel about things moving forward. It will also enable all impacted parties to alter their expectations accordingly.
When resetting expectations, it is incredibly important that you have a complete view of what still needs to be completed, what remains unanswered, and what could be altered over the remainder of the project. If things are not considered or ignored, any update will be inaccurate and lead to further frustration later in the project.
Don’t stress about what others will think—they’ll understand
The above section sounds great, but that sort of conversation can feel daunting. However, most people would be pleasantly surprised to learn just how understanding others can be. Most creative professionals have been in similar situations themselves and will appreciate the honest feedback. It is helpful to be able to explain how things ended up going differently than planned and to have potential solutions ready to discuss.
It’s remarkable how most of the times I’ve picked up the phone expecting to have an unpleasant call, the client completely understood and appreciated the update.
When you’re solely focused on a project, you feel the full gravity of that task. But, other stakeholders likely have other things underway and this particular setback might not be as critical as it would initially seem.
Don’t dwell on the past, focus on solutions
Building on the last section, it’s incredibly important to propose potential approaches to improve the situation. In the process of describing a situation, many stakeholders are willing to explore alternative solutions that could resolve the issue. For example, if a project is trending over budget, rather than continuing to overspend, some clients might prefer that the scope is altered to maintain their desired budget. Or if a particular element of a project isn’t delivering the desired results, another feature could be an acceptable substitute.
Discussing alternate solutions leaves everyone feeling better, and fosters an open conversation about the project. Everyone will feel like they have a choice in how to move forward, and the group can collectively decide if a change, of course, would be a suitable solution or if the overrun can be tolerated. In either scenario, expectations have been reset and all parties are on the same page.
Focus on building trust and reducing resentment
All relationships are built on trust and being dependable is a vital aspect of building any career. By following the advice laid out in this article, it’s possible to build a strong foundation for any professional relationship. Any job that lasts more than a few months will have some facet that is underperforming in some aspect. Being able to effectively handle those scenarios is an invaluable skill and will be appreciated by managers, teams, and clients.
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