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Run to the Bad News

Summary: Cut to the chase! An effective style of communication is to "run to the bad news"; for time-starved stakeholders, this approach works by focusing the attention on the critical few decision points and issues.

For many dyed-in-the-wool professionals, management presentations for projects are quick – and thankfully so.

Yes, brevity can be a good thing, since a shortened time frame will focus the conversation on the small number of key updates and decisions to be taken. More likely, meeting times are trimmed as busy attendees think ahead to their next meeting, accelerate to the “punch line”, and skip to the last two slides in the deck.

This phenomenon does not mesh well the common pattern of “first the good news, then the bad news”. It seems easier to work up to the tough stuff, softening up the audience by first pointing out the things that are going well. But why not just cut to the chase? One of my new favorite styles of communication is what I call “run to the bad news” – or more benignly, “run to the punch line” …

Situation: Employees demand BYOD-friendly connectivity for their phones and tablets

Proposal: Open up security controls, and shift costs out of central IT

Punch Line: Costs will increase in a decentralized manner, and controls will be lost

Agility trades off against risk management and cost control. The conversation should focus on mitigating the risks and adding cost controls – not on iPad vs. Android or the changing work habits of millennials.

Situation: A large system investment from a few years back is not delivering the promised results – it’s making life more difficult

Proposal: Shut down the old system, replace with a properly sized [less expensive] replacement

Punch Line: Accelerated write-off of depreciation will hit in the current fiscal year

Everyone agrees that the proposed system is needed – but don’t forget the accounting rules when computing the total cost to implement.

Situation: eMail storage requirements are expanding – backup times are out of control, and we face potentially high eDiscovery costs

Proposal: Implement a mandatory, automated email retention program

Punch Line: We will have to change something fundamental (how people use email) for every single person in the company

Risk management again; balancing the cost of a potential event against interrupting everyone’s already busy schedules and asking them to change something basic.

Situation: Implementing Cloud-based service offerings are preferred because vendors organizations are more responsive than central IT

Proposal: Enable functional areas to initiate cloud-based systems

Punch Line: Managing the service provider must be a full-time role for someone in that functional area

It’s not helpful to rehash the inability to get support or the lack of resources; at least with internal support teams, you know who to point at, and differences can be worked out within a hierarchy. External providers convert hallway conversations to highly structured billable events.

Situation: We acquired your company so we could add your products to our offerings to common customers, and to expand sales with our national distribution network

Proposal: Centralize operations and customer service, and migrate to the monolithic SAP system running the distribution network

Punch Line: Some people at these locations will lose their jobs

We need the incoming teams to transfer their customer, product, and product knowledge – but folks will assume the worst. Some may despair and others may quickly leave to a more stable opportunity – we need to address the situation quickly.

The Critical Few and the Trivial Many

Please note that I didn’t list those examples to start any debates here – but did you notice how quickly you are ready to launch into a valuable, meaty, pros-and-cons conversation? That’s what you want with your exec project review, as soon as everyone is in the room.

For time- and attention-starved stakeholders, this approach works well, by quickly focusing the attention on the critical few decision points and issues, as opposed to the trivial many that are non-value adding details (another take on the Pareto principle). Maybe it’s a symptom of the times – people are running on tight schedules, have a million things on their mind, and want to get right to the point and move on. Makes for fast decisions when all are in agreement, but there are always some discussions that seem to linger on.

Why? Because in the end, no matter how much planning, adjusting, facilitating, and accommodating – in the end, someone’s life is going to change. It might not be as significant as “so-and-so will no longer have a job” – but it could be. Sometimes, changing a well-established behavior, a routine process, can be as traumatic as a job action.

At other times, it’s the old “change is difficult” routine. Note in the examples that not all of these situations are “bad news”. Often, the “punch line” is just the tough new concept to understand or the hard-to-manage-idea that will break the project if we fail (but make the project when we succeed). And it’s not always bad news that must be embraced; it’s more a “critical path” for your thought processes, a focus on the “big rocks”, the 20% of the work that controls 80% of the cost – stuff like that.

Running to the punch line makes discussions go faster and solutions come quicker. Like ripping a bandage off, it gets the pain over with quickly so the organization can deliver to the promised benefits.

# 14 April, 2014

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.