Episode 6 — We Are Honest, Always
Everyone who works with us, clients and partners included, trust us because they know that we’ve got their best in mind when guiding process and decisions. We don’t cover up mistakes; we illuminate them with the intent of not repeating it. We stay transparent when it comes to scope, budget, and timeline changes. We resolve conflict by remaining neutral and honest about causes and solutions. We truly believe that the truth always prevails, and we champion that in all interactions and communications.
In episode six of Sprints & Milestones, your hosts talk through the hesitation, challenges, and clear benefits of being completely honest when it comes to project challenges, mistakes, and straight-up issues. Get ready for stories with so-so outcomes, and ideas on why honesty is important in business no matter your role. Here are a few topics covered in the episode:
- Delivering bad news
- Bracing yourself for the worst response
- How others view transparency, and how that can affect you (or how you’re viewed)
- The positive impacts honesty can have on project teams
- Dealing with scope (and money) and the uncomfortable conversations related to change, or even unexpected increases in project budgets needed
Links Mentioned in This Episode
Transcript: Episode 6
Announcer: Welcome to Sprint and Milestones, a podcast where Brett Harned and Greg Storey share war stories, tips, tactics, and anecdotes on navigating the sometimes rough waters of getting digital projects done. If you're leading projects and want some help and reassurance that you're doing the right things, you've downloaded the right podcast. Enjoy the show.
Brett Harned: This episode is sponsored by TeamGantt and Harvest, two companies who have supported me and the digital project management community for some time now. TeamGantt is an online project management platform that helps you to create intuitive and beautiful project plans. For more information and a free account, visit teamgantt.com. Harvest, if don't already know, is a leading time tracking and reporting software that has helped me to keep many budgets and projects intact. For more information and to start your free trial, visit getharvest.com. On with the show.
Welcome to Sprints and Milestones. On our last episode, we talked about how project managers should focus on goals and how that leads to setting and managing expectations and making that job a lot easier. Related to that is knowing that you can always be honest about your work, your timeline, your budget, your scope, and your progress. There's a tendency with some PMs to keep that information, particularly when it comes to issues, private. I think being honest is the best policy. Let me read from the book as the next principle is we are honest always. Everyone who works with us, clients and partners included, trust us because they know that we've got their best in mind when guiding process and decisions.
We don't coverup mistakes. We illuminate them with the intent of not repeating them. We stay transparent when it comes to scope, budget, and timeline changes. We resolve conflict by remaining neutral and honest about causes and solutions. We truly believe that truth always prevails, and we champion that in all interactions and communications. Although I fumbled through that a bit, I think it's clear that being honest and forthright is probably the best way to build trust in a relationship. Trust combined with the team and your clients is essential to project success. What do you think, Greg?
Greg Storey: Absolutely. There's no other way to go about it. It doesn't matter how bad the situation, which I have the perfect story for. Many years back, we had, again, another large client, and I say that because it just made the entire project more daunting. The budget was super high. In an earlier episode, Brett, you talked about having a kickoff with like 40 or so stakeholders. We had a small theater of stakeholders during our kickoff. In hindsight, it was a bit ridiculous, but all of those folks in this large corporation had some kind of dotted line responsibility to some part of the website. The whole thing, it was just a big project.
We were a small, very small firm in comparison in size and capabilities, but they still chose us for job, and we had work to do. Things are going, what I would say, really well. We had assembled a team of the right experts at the time for the work that needed to be complete, and we were just getting to the closing phases of our UX work, which was pretty large and in scale. We had one more design review to go before we could move into visual design or at least move more into visual design and completing that work. We had a design review set for Monday, early afternoon. Monday morning, my project manager came to me and said, "I can't find our designer."
I kind of was reading sheer panic across her face, so we talked about it and was trying to understand. Like "Okay, so you can't find the designer? Maybe they're running an errand for something." It was clear after talking to her for just a few minutes that this person had basically just fallen off the face of the earth. We continued searching for this individual virtually, trying to get them by phone, by text, by whatever. I don't think Slack existed back then, but trying all the means that we had available to us and just could not reach them. We went ahead with the meeting, hoping that they would just be a pop in surprise.
We were also prepared to say, "First, some bad news," because the typically work would have been delivered before the meeting so everybody could download it, print it out, whatever they had to do. That wasn't happening. We went ahead and met with the individuals and told them that "We're having difficulties trying to get in touch with the designer. We're not sure if there's been some kind of family emergency or life emergency, but we would be in touch." Long story short, because this went for a week, by Tuesday, we were expecting an even worse outcome, which is nobody can find this individual. We had people going to their house.
We got tied into a network of friends, and nobody could find this person. We were really expecting the very worst. With that in mind, while some of my folks were trying to focus on just finding this individual just to make sure that they were safe and sound, I prepared to have a very transparent conversation with our project owner at the client side to let them know that this individual was pretty key in finishing the work and that if in fact they had finished the work, we didn't even have a copy of it. This was going to set things back by a couple of weeks. All things considered, not the worst outcome, but still, for a client of that caliber, they're not used to hearing those types of things, or at least that's what I thought at the time.
We met with the project team and with the project sponsor on the phone. I just came clear and said, "We're having issues finding this individual. While that search is going on, and we hope for the best, we have in the meantime created a contingency plan to try to prevent as much as loss of time and the quality of the work as possible," which also meant too by the way that in this contingency planning, I had to ask and beg for another UX designer for another team to drop what they were working because their timeline was not as severe, which meant it was going to take at least a week for that person to get up to speed on existing work, what we were trying to do with the project so that they could finish it off.
I was pretty open and honest with the entire project team on the client side. Of course, apologized and what I was hoping is by showing that we had a contingency plan, that we had really thought this through and that we were still devoted and dedicated to serving the client and doing the best work possible. The team was pretty chill about it. They understood the difficulty. There's obviously some confusion around this type of scenario because it doesn't happen that often if at all for most of us. I thought that was that. A couple minutes after that meeting was done, I got a direct call on my cellphone from the project sponsor. She was pissed off six ways to Sunday. At first, I just didn't understand.
She's basically just chewing me out. It was like Twilight Zone. It was like, "Wait, what just happened?" I was being honest, forthcoming, transparent, answering all the questions, being vulnerable as you could be in that situation, so why is this person angry? As it turns out, she was miffed because, this is what I think is interesting, in her project style, she told me straight up that she would not have told her team that because she saw that being honest and transparent about a situation like this meant that the team would not trust her in being able to get the project complete on time. I'm so glad we're talking about this because this situation, to this day, I've never had that happen again. It was just, again, so like bizarro response.
Brett: That's so rare.
Brett: The situation is rare, but the response is just really bizarre to me.
Greg: What it did is our relationship with the project team, the people that we work with day in and day out, the trust between us could not have been any stronger, right. We could've all shared deepest, darkest secrets and still been BFFs after the project. I think that the team just appreciated having that transparency because obviously they didn't get it in their day-to-day work. I wanted to share that when we got to this topic because yes, you need to be honest always, but there's a couple caveats to that I want to share from what I learned.
Greg: Because I wouldn't change a thing, but one of the things that we did is when the problem became more substantial, meaning this person really did, we found them, I want to say five days later. There was some substance abuse issues that we were not aware of, nobody was aware of frankly. We were able to try to help that person seek some help. Just to give you an idea of the severity, nobody could find this person for five days. On Monday, when it was apparent that okay, with them gone, every day is likely going to impact two to three days of the entire project, so we need to come clean as soon as possible, but we also need to have an idea.
It's not just enough to say, "Hey, we have a problem," right. We need to come with, "Hey, we have a problem, and we have an idea of how to fix that." That's all to say being transparent and honest does not mean that project managers should provide breaking news, right. Because I think if we had gone to them and said, "Holy crap, can you believe this? This person's gone, and we don't know what to do." Right then and there, I think we would've been, I wouldn't say fired, but I think we would've lost every ounce of trust that we had built up with the team prior to that.
I think you definitely want to, when something arises that you have to have that moment of honesty, make sure that you are one, transparent with your own team, right, because I think you got to go back to the client or the project owner or your boss or whomever this is, and say, "We've taken a couple of minutes to think through how we're going to get around this issue," right.
Greg: So, so, so important.
Brett: I agree with you. I think the breaking news and the way that you put that is so important because it's not about broadcasting every challenge or problem that you have. It's about coming to the table with the challenge or the problem, but also offering your response to the problem or how you're already fixing it because there's nothing worse than in any situation, PM or not, somebody coming to the table and saying, "I hate this thing that happened," or "This thing happened," without saying, "And this is what we're going to do to fix it," or "This is my idea. Do you want to contribute to it, or do you have any other ideas that can help us fix it?"
Still, the response that you got was bizarre, so sorry for that. I've been in situations where I've had to communicate negative information or I guess changes or problems in a way that makes me uncomfortable or has made me uncomfortable. I guess one example is related to the scope issue cause I do mention scope in this part of the principle. We had a project where we kicked things off with a client. We had a great workshop. We sketched some really cool, forward thinking ideas that ended up landing in wire frames. At that point, the front end developer happened to be out of the office and missed the internal review, which meant that she couldn't do a gut check on scope.
We went with it and presented the ideas. Then when we got to design, that was when the front end developer checked back in and was like, "Whoa, this whole thing is like hundreds of hours of work. We can't do this within this project." The client had already been really excited about it. Right away, I knew like, "Okay, this is a big problem that is going to be a hurdle. I don't know what I'm going to come up against when I bring this up as a challenge." I had to sit down on my own and think about where could things be moved in this scope, how will this affect the project goals. If we did want to do a change request, how much is it going to cost them?
A lot of work and thought had to go into what the conversation could be before I could even have a conversation about it. When I finally got to the conversation, I very plainly broke the news. It was nothing personal here. There was nothing about a human gone missing or something that you would expect someone to have a little bit of empathy about. This was really truly a mistake. There's no other way. It was my mistake too. I just plainly said what the problem was, and I let him respond. His response with, "Are you effing kidding me? I'm paying a quarter of a million dollars for this thing, and you're telling me I can't get everything that you've proposed?" That was fun.
I didn't just let him respond like that, and I said, "Well, I'm not saying that you have to pay more money. I'm saying that we need to shift our approach, and here are the ideas I have to move forward." I presented a couple of options. We ended up coming to an agreement where his team was actually available. They'd be taking over the work anyway. We partnered to get some of the work done, and they took on the lion's share of development on that one thing. Everything worked out, and they got what they wanted.
Greg: That's good. I think it's worth pointing out here that both the cases that you and I just shared, there was a lot of money on the table.
Greg: But, in my experience, there could've been $5,000 on the table because not everybody plays in the realm of those amounts of money. Some people play ...
Greg: ... with more, right.
Greg: I think Jeffrey Zeldman shared with me that the scale of money doesn't matter. You'll work just as hard for a $5,000 project as you will a $50,000 project, right. That certainly applies here is when you are in those situations and you know that you've got to be somewhat the bearer of bad tidings, right, the amount of money doesn't necessarily make it more severe because in those situations, there's still people that I think we all go to that spot, which is I'm going to get yelled at, right.
I'm going to get in trouble, and I think there's a lot of us out there that we don't, well of course nobody enjoys that feeling, but most of us, our natural response is I need to go. I just need to run away. I want to go in the opposite direction as opposed to I need to face this, and I need to do it sooner than later. In my career, there have been times where I've had to essentially own the problem of others because the ones that didn't make the mistakes did not show up.
Greg: They didn't turn out for the meeting to assess what happened. I've found that when I've been honest about things and even honest about situations where I may not have been the primary doer of wrong, but there have been times where I saw that, and this goes back to the laser focus of if I foresee that there's going to be a problem and I don't speak up, then I'm a part of that problem.
Greg: I think the honesty extends not just having to go in front of a client or go in front of a boss and admit something, but that honesty extends to the team at large, right.
Brett: Right. I think no matter what, the point about being honest is that it's better to get mistakes or problems out on the table and discuss them. It's not about finger pointing. I think obviously if you've made a mistake, it's best to just own up to it. More importantly, it's your recovery, right.
Brett: People are going to remember your recovery on the mistake more than a mistake if you do it well and you handle it well. That's all about just being a good communicator and knowing just how transparent to be because in situations and potentially in the situation you were in where it was very highly personal, you're probably not going to share the fact that there was substance abuse issues. You're not going to share about like somebody's health, but you can say generally, "There is a problem with one person, just want to let you know this is what's happening. This is what we're doing to recover from it."
Then that just gets it out of the way. I don't know, to me, there's levels of transparency, right. Like I'm not going to share all of the details of someone else's life because it's not what I'm meant to be doing. What I'm meant to do is to clear the issues out of the way and move on and tell you how we're doing that. To me, that's real honesty in the project setting.
Greg: I think in this day and age, the problems that can derail a project, anytime you put humans in the mix, you're going to have problems. Maybe not as severe, but there's always going to be problems there. Technology, it breaks. Data, I mean I can think of a couple of projects where data was lost, right. That's almost, well probably even worse, and it's difficult to recover from those things. At some point, it's better for you to be clean, come clean, than it is for someone to find out, right, because if the client's going to find out the truth behind your back, then you can just kiss that relationship goodbye, right.
Brett: Right. It's the idea that one thing that isn't true or maybe call it a lie, the first time you lie, it happens. You get away with it, and then that snowballs into more lies. Finally, something uncovers or gets uncovered, and you're put in this really awkward position where you've got to answer for how things have gone way off track, and you haven't been honest about it all along. I just think it's a matter of, I guess, having the decorum in some way of handling the situation and having the frank conversation and trying to find a middle ground with someone and hoping that they're empathetic to the situation that you're in because obviously nobody wants to lie.
Nobody wants to be put in a position where you're nervous to share details about someone missing a deadline or whatever it might be that can go wrong on a project. PMs are put in those situations all the time, you know. It usually comes down to the deadline thing, right. Somebody got shifted to another project cause there was a fire they had to put out, and your work got put behind. Nobody really wants to communicate that, but there is a way of saying, "We hit a little bit of a roadblock, and it's putting us back a day or two. We have a plan to make up for the time later," and then move on. It's all about just making people happy and let them know that you've got their back.
Greg: I think it's also worth pointing out here too, from my experience, when problems arise ... I don't know. Obviously, everybody just wants to take the errors away, right, and to make it better. In my experience, there's a tendency to want to discount the work, right, that to go to the client and say, "Hey sorry, we're late on this, but don't worry. I'm going to knock off X amount of dollars from the budget," right. I know people, designers in particular, who have tried that tactic, and I just want to caution folks out there that is not what a client wants to hear, at least most of the clients in my experience because it's not about money. It's about getting the job done and making sure that the quality is there, right.
Greg: I think that for some of us, there's a tendency to think, "What kind of good news can I sprinkle on top of this bad news to make it not hurt as much or not make the consequences seem as bad or as dire as they may be?" Providing some kind of shortcut, whether that's in the form of a monetary discount or additional work promised, don't because I think that's where the clients going to look at that and say, "Well, you're focused on the wrong problem," right. "You're focused on trying to make me happy when we need to focused on how do we get the work done in the first place because that will make me happy."
Brett: Absolutely. I think if there's anything that can tie a bow in this conversation, it's just that honesty is the best policy, no matter what, in business and in your personal life. I think what we're talking about relates to just personal relationships within your own life. If you're lying to someone or someone's lying to you, there's an indication that there's more than one lie happening. Those things tend to snowball, so then you start to lose trust.
Same thing happens in business partnerships. If you're not honest about the work that you're doing, the progress that you're making, the impact that you're having or not having in an area, then there's a chance that you're not really paying attention, and you don't care about the work, and you're going to lose the trust of the person you're partnered with. That's whether you're a client or a designer on an agency side or project manager.
Greg: Or internal team.
Brett: Yeah, totally. That doesn't matter where you are. It's just living your life as an honest human being. Read more about how you can stay honest in project management in chapter seven of Project Management for Humans. That chapter is called, "Communicate Like a Pro." Our next episode is going to be about the next principle, which is we are pathfinders. Looking forward to that conversation, Greg. Thanks again.
Brett: All right, thanks.
Greg: Bye bye.
Announcer: You've sprinted to the end of this episode. Milestone complete. Thank you for listening. If you're looking for more resources on digital project management, check out Project Management for Humans, by Brett Harned, which is available on amazon.com or through Rosenfeld Media. And of course, don't forget to subscribe on iTunes. And check out our show notes and more at sprintsandmilestones.com.