how to initiate a conversation about a project that isn’t going well

If you have nagging (or larger!) concerns about how a project on your team is going, don’t wait to raise the topic. Sometimes managers delay these conversations because they want to give their team more room to course-correct first, or they figure that they should wait and see how things develop, or they feel awkward about saying “hey, I don’t think this is the quality we need.” But in most cases, waiting to speak up does your staff a disservice, because it means that they aren’t privy to your worries and thus can’t right the ship … or in some cases, they don’t realize that they need to share information with you that might alter your assessment.

Here’s how to initiate a conversation with someone who’s running a project that you have concerns about.

1. Invite the person to talk. If you have regular one-on-one meetings, it’s fine to bring it up there by just saying something like, “Can we talk about how the X project is going?” But if you think the person will do better with some advance warning that the conversation is coming, make a point of flagging it ahead of time. That doesn’t need to be a big deal; it can be just a simple email saying something like “Would you add to our list for tomorrow that we should talk about how the X project is going?”

2. Share your observations.In the meeting, share what’s worrying you, and make sure you use concrete examples, which will lead to a more productive conversation than if you’re vague. For example, say something like, “I have some concerns about how the X project is going. It looks ticket sales aren’t where we’d wanted them to be by now, and I’ve talked to a few VIPs who hadn’t heard about the event at all.”

3. Ask the staff member to share her perspective on how things are going.You can do this by asking, “What’s your take” or “Are there that I’m missing?” This is a crucial step because both of you will get far more out of the conversation if it’s genuinely a discussion, not a one-way critique delivery. So don’t jump to conclusions about what’s going on; solicit the staff person’s perspective, both so that she feels heard and because you might learn something that changes your own assessment.

Alternate approach: In some cases, you might reverse steps #2 and #3, and open the conversation by asking the staff member for her assessment of how the project is going. This can make sense when the staff member is likely to identify on her own the issues you were planning on raising. But be more cautious of doing this with someone who doesn’t have a lot of self-awareness, because if the person delivers a glowing assessment of a project that you think is deeply troubled, that can make the conversation more awkward than if you just cut to the chase at the beginning.

4. Commit to next steps. Once you’ve talked through what’s happening, wrap up the conversation with a plan for the path forward. What actions will the staff member take to get things back on course? And don’t forget to decide when you’ll next check in about how things are going – which can be as simple as “Let’s plan to look at these numbers again in a week and see if this has gotten us back on track or whether we need to do something more.”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. MissMaple

    These are good suggestions coming from the management side. Do you have any suggestions for bringing up concerns in a constructive manner from a lower level? I’m in a position where we work on a lot of joint teams with different agencies and different groups across our own agency. I’m sometimes in a position where I see potential issues cropping up, but don’t really have the authority or direct responsibility to do anything about it.

    (Unrelated, but exciting, I just heard from the hiring manager for an interview I had on Monday that they’re putting together an offer! Needed to tell someone since I’m still at work for another 5 hours :) )

  2. Brett

    This whole area of failing projects or even just underperforming projects is why I am really starting to like agile methods. It makes is easier to spot when a team is off track and identify that relatively quickly. It is okay to abandon a project direction and shift. It is still not a magic wand though. While short work sprints and the range of meetings (standups, sprint plannings, retrospectives, etc) give a lot of opportunity and even responsibilities to communicate and correct, it still will not fix people who will not speak up on problems or will not change directions when there are foreseeable problems. I am realizing I am have been falling short some times on asking for perspective and that might help with those issues.

  3. ArtK

    For me, it’s very important to lay the groundwork before the project starts. One of the reasons that people hide bad news from a manager is because they’re afraid of the reaction. I haven’t figured out the best way to communicate it, but some version of “If you bring problems to me early, my response will be ‘ok, let’s work together on a solution’. If you bring them at the last minute, it’s going to be less pleasant.” The point being to bring issues early when they’re easier (and cheaper) to solve. If you tell me that you’re a month behind on the day before it’s due, I’m not going to be a happy person.

    The other part of the prep is to make sure you have useful reporting in place when things start, so you’re not suddenly going to them and say “What’s happening? I don’t know what’s going on!”

    One other reason people don’t report problems is the “boiling frog” issue. There’s a little glitch and they think “we can fix this, no need to bring it up,” but then it snowballs with more little glitches until they suddenly realize that it’s a major issue. People aren’t always hiding things deliberately, they may not be aware that there are significant issues. Forest-vs-trees and all that.

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