Fine Wine and Boiled Frogs

bottle of wine and frogFor many, one of the most difficult aspects of managing project teams is the fact that sooner or later things will not go as planned. When that happens you need the confidence to hold difficult and uncomfortable conversations with key stakeholders. A former employer was fond of saying “Bad news isn’t like fine wine; it doesn’t get better with time.” It is best to report bad news early so stakeholders can act before it degenerates into a crisis. That principle is sound but it doesn’t make it easier to discuss tough issues. Let’s look at a few ways you can deliver bad news in a confident and professional manner.

Don’t Become a Boiled Frog

There’s an old cliché about boiling frogs. It is said a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water will jump out. But a frog in a pot of warm water that is slowly boiled will stay put. That’s how lots of bad news gets worse before it gets reported. We recognize a minor issue but since it’s small we don’t report it. Unfortunately some of those small issues spin out of control and then we’re asked why we didn’t say anything earlier. Our hindsight always tells us we waited too long to report the problem but by then it’s too late. If you can avoid becoming a boiled frog, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of surprise bad news you have to deliver.

The best way to raise issues before they become crises is to proactively communicate them early and often. Doing so people become accustomed to hearing about lots of little issues, most of which get resolved without their intervention. However, it also provides those same people with regular updates and allows them to see the big issues coming before its too late. It’s also a great idea to predefine an escalation path so you’ll know who to contact if an issue reaches a predetermined threshold. Finally, consider increasing transparency by making your issues log widely accessible. When you go to an executive and explain how an issue requires their attention, it’s not a total surprise if they’re already aware of the problem.

When Issues Need Management Attention

Despite your best efforts, if you’re managing people or projects long enough you’ll encounter an issue that needs to be brought to the attention of others. When that happens, here are a few steps you can take to deliver the news confidently and professionally.

1. Explain the situation

If you’ve communicated the issue earlier and provided regular updates, you may be able to simply remind your management of what the issue is and how it came to the current state. If the issue is new you’ll need to explain it as objectively as possible. Keep your discussion concise and factual. A chronological explanation is often helpful. Executives are busy and probably don’t have time to hear every detail leading to the current situation. Instead give them an overview and let them ask questions. Do not speculate or get personal. Stick to the facts.

2. Discuss the responses you’re considering

After you’ve clarified the issue, discuss the possible solutions you are considering or have already considered along with a recommended approach. You can delay reporting most issues long enough to consider a few potential solutions. That enables you to present ways to resolve the problem at the same time you’re discussing the issue. By including a recommendation you demonstrate leadership and inspire confidence. Well thought out responses also minimize the time your management spends looking for a solution.

3. Layout a clear plan of action

Whether you have developed a set of options for dealing with the situation, be prepared to lay out a clear plan of action. The plan can be very informal but should include the next steps you are taking to resolve the issue and make it clear when you’ll next be reporting your progress. If you’re working to resolve a highly urgent, critical business issue you’re next communication point might be as soon as you’ve made significant progress or after an hour, whichever comes first. Setting time lines for communications forces them to be proactive and further avoids you becoming a boiled frog. Technical teams trying to solve problems are never ready to communicate progress until they resolve the issue. You must periodically force them to stop and provide updates.

4. Solicit feedback

Now that you’ve explained the issue, discussed possible solutions and described your next steps it’s time to solicit feedback. There are at least two benefits to soliciting feedback. First, it gets the recipient of the news actively involved in resolving the issue. Second, if you’ve explained the issue well the recipient can provide a fresh perspective on potential solutions. They will bring a broader perspective and new information to the discussion. It’s often much easier to see a solution when you haven’t been embroiled in the activities that led up to the issue.


Unfortunately managing people or projects often involves dealing with conflict and resolving issues. By keeping key stakeholders proactively informed, before things get off track, you can avoid surprising them with bad news. When things don’t live up to expectations talk to your stakeholders early, provide them with possible solutions and a plan of action and then ask for their help resolving the issue. It’s still no fun delivering bad news but by following these steps you can establish a level of professionalism during a potentially difficult time.

The Impact Makers’ Difference

This has been an outstanding year of growth for Impact Makers.    As of mid-year we are on track to triple our 2010 revenue by the end of 2011!  Since Impact Makers is committed to returning our profits to the community, this incredible revenue growth will directly benefit our charitable partners: RxPartnership and Children’s Health Involving Parents (CHIP) of Greater Richmond.

Impact Makers is bringing Daniel Vacanti back to Richmond to teach a two day class on Kanban.  If you want to learn how to use lean principles to improve your organization’s productivity, join us for Kanban training on September 14 and 15, 2011.

You can read more about the services we offer, register for Kanban training, and find out about our charitable partners on website.