Bad News

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Bad News

I’VE been flying a considerable amount lately and have developed an unhealthy interest in the safety movie that’s shown at the start of every flight. Currently, my favorite part of the show is when the stewardess (and it’s always an “ess”) shows you how to use the life vest when the plane augers into the freezing cold North Atlantic at 2,000 miles per hour. After telling you that your life vest is under your seat (I’ve never looked, but I’m willing to believe them), the video concentrates on when to blow the thing up. You’re not supposed to do it, apparently, until you’re right at the door, ready to leave.

There are problems with this part of the video. For example, what facial expression should the stewardess demonstrating the technique have? In the Air Canada video, she has a typical Canadian look of friendly determination. The lady in the video for Singapore Airlines has an expression of almost maniacal gleefulness. My feeling is that the Air Canada stewardess doesn’t understand the problem. The Singapore Airlines stewardess scares me.

The environment for this part of the video is also a problem. None of the videos show any approximation of reality—a crushed mash of screaming passengers clawing their way toward the door, for instance. The Air Canada video has the stewardess advancing toward the exit door, which is filled with a soft white glow. It looks very much like the way heaven is represented in most movies these days (“go toward the light, Junie”).

My point is that there’s really no good way to give bad news. And, in our business, we give bad news all of the time, mostly about how the current project is going to: a) come in late; b) cost more; or c) all of the above. In some organizations, a “kill the messenger” attitude actively discourages staff from bringing bad news to either managers or users. Besides, we can always find some way to justify a belief that this missed milestone won’t affect the ultimate delivery of the project. These include, but aren’t limited to: “This was a one-time problem,” “We’ve got some slack in the rest of the schedule,” and (my favorite) “The rest of the project will go faster now.”

There are two results of not reporting bad news. The first, of course, is that bad stuff doesn’t go away. The future tends to be very much like the past: What happens in any stage of the project is probably a good reflection of what will happen in the later stages of the project. If you are behind on any milestone in your projects then you will—will—be behind on every subsequent milestone. The second result is that the problem will occur again, and again, and… you get the picture.

Because I’m on the editorial advisory board of The Information Systems Consultant, I had the good fortune of seeing a pre-publication version of a David Irvine article for that newsletter. The article was on using timesheets, a topic that I would have thought to be unbelievably boring. David made a very interesting point, though: Without good time tracking, you probably don’t know how much time anything takes or even how much time you have to spend on a project. Time tracking is a good example of how reporting a problem allows you to solve it. Effective use of timesheets not only illustrates that you’re exceeding your estimates (bad news), it also supplies the tools to solve your problems. If you suppress the problem, you can’t gather the information to solve it.

Failing to report problems to management and users also sends a very definite message. If you’re not willing to share bad news with your user community, then you’re effectively telling them that they’re not part of the project. You’re back to those old, bad ways of the “ivory tower” IS department that regularly inflicted systems on its users. But when you share bad news with your users, you get them involved in solving the problem. Perhaps the deadline is more flexible than you thought, or some requirement can be relaxed. You won’t know until you act as if your users are as much a part of the project as you are.

Not that anything’s going wrong here. No, I’m fine. Everything’s great (really!). Just go toward the light.