Software delivery delays happen. We could argue that they shouldn’t, but despite the best efforts of various project methodologies software deadline changes are common. One of the less fun parts of responding to a software project delay is having to inform stakeholders about delays.
Luckily, most business stakeholders react to delays in a calm and understanding way. Saying something like, ‘Oh, a delay. That’s a shame. Well thanks for telling me. I’m sure you’ll let me know when the work is done. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help’. Oh wait, no, that is what happens in opposite land. The usual reaction is a big dollop of frustration and a barrage of questions.
With a little planning it is possible to reduce the level of frustration. Here are five steps you can take to make it easier to tell a business stakeholder about a delay
- Talk about it as soon as possible — don’t wait. If possible, talk about it as a risk before it is a reality. The sooner the better.
- Summarise the information.
- Give a new target delivery date.
- Ask what the business impact of the delay is.
- Revise the solution or come up with new solutions when you understand the impact.
Step 1: Talk about it as soon as possible
Don’t wait to communicate a delay. Tell people about a delay as soon as you know about it. The only thing waiting does is waste time that could be spent reacting to the delay. In fact, you can let people know about a delay before it happens. If there is a risk of delay talk about it. Your team and the business stakeholders might find ways to avoid the risk becoming an issue.
Step 2: Get to the point quickly
Business teams are mostly interested in three key things:
- What exactly is delayed?
- How long is the delay?
- What can and is being be done to avoid or reduce the delay?
Answer these questions before you are asked. Your summary of the delay could in fact be given by asking and answering these questions. That makes it 100% clear you have considered the things the business teams care about. Avoid background detail or describing the causes. There is usually time to evaluate what happened later. The first thing people care about is the impact. Everything else is less important.
Step 3: Give a new target delivery date
Knowing something is delayed is annoying. Not knowing the new delivery date is much worse. Imagine you have a package arriving and you need to be at home to receive it. The shipping company tells you it is late but they don’t give you a new delivery date. It’s annoying to have no idea when something will arrive.
Always give a new date. If you don’t know an exact date, or if you are still working out what the date will be you still need to give a date. Give the date or time you expect to know the eventual delivery date. That gives the business team something tangible without committing you to a made up guess date. It also gives you time to find out the new delivery date.
Step 4: Ask what the business impact of the delay is
People accept bad news better if they think you care about it. One of the simplest ways to show you care about the impact of a delay is to ask what the impact is. Asking questions shows interest and people like it when we show interest in things that are important to them.
After you’ve told them about the delay, take an interest in the impact. Ask something like ‘What does this mean for the project?’ or ‘How big a problem is this?’. These questions change a delay message from a factual bit of bad news, into a human discussion. That small bit of relationship building removes some of the frustration from delay discussions.
Step 5: Revise the solution or come up with new solutions when you understand the impact
When you know the impact of the delay you can review your proposed solutions. (see ‘Get to the point’ above). If the impact is bigger than you thought you might reconsider the solutions. Priorities may change or less conventional approaches could help address a big problem. Talk to the business team as you are thinking through options. This shows them you heard the impact and are trying to find ways to make the impact smaller. People are less angry when they see you trying to help.
There is no way to remove all the awkwardness of talking about delays. But it is possible to make it a lot less confrontational.
You can avoid a lot of frustration by giving the audience the information they want quickly. Be specific about the delay. Say what is delayed and by how much. Tell people what you are doing to lessen the delay. Doing nothing is a sure-fire way to increase frustration. Ask how the delay impacts the user or the business team. Taking an interest shows you care about more than just the deliverable. And finally, work with the business team to come up with ideas to reduce the impact.