Delivering Bad News

September 15, 1998 · by James P. Cramer

While bad news may test the character of the firm--it need not weaken the firm or the relationships that the organization has. How a firm works under pressure in times of crisis can, in fact, become an opportunity to build bonds of evolving new trus

People in this industry sometimes find themselves in the midst of unpleasant surprises. And all too often the bad news comes in clusters. It may be a star member of the staff who abruptly leaves. It may be a liability claim that comes out of nowhere, yet affects everyone in the firm (such as will happen to perhaps 20% of firms this year). Or, it may be an unwanted building project budget dilemma, such as one that has just happened with the new GSA Federal Court House Project in Brooklyn designed by Cesar Pelli and HLW International.

All seemed to be going well with the Federal Courthouse project, planned for Cadman Plaza East in Brooklyn. But now a budget crisis has hit and the future occupants are in a rage. As readers of DesignIntelligence know from our quarterly economic tables, New York's sizzling construction market has elevated bids on many projects well beyond projections. In this instance, the cost estimate for the courthouse project was $194 million. But Congress did not appropriate funds until late 1996 and bids were due in February 1998. The project is now embroiled in a hot debate with the judges insisting that they need everything in the original design. No scaled back project is acceptable to them. Public work often requires design professionals to defend project budgets while providing value-engineering options at the same time. It's hard to please all parties. There are perceptions of excess by some and poor planning by others. Just as GSA gets the blame for bungling the bidding process, the designers are criticized for the inherent red herring luxuries of federal courthouses.

Perhaps you have experienced something similar this year. Budget crisis, staffing problems, quality complaints and liability surprises are all too common. And it doesn't have to be your fault. Still, it's on your turf and it needs a point person to bring health and direction. I've come to understand that it is problems such as these that actually give meaning to professional practice today. As strange as this sounds, it is during these problem-solving situations that the true character of firms becomes apparent. And, a key lesson is that firms should anticipate that really bad news most certainly will crop up sometime.

Knowing how to deliver bad news can become a strategic strength and a strategic differentiation for your organization. When the bad news comes--as it will predictably for nearly 100% of firms, businesses, and organizations in this industry--remember that there is hidden opportunity for you to become associated with the solutions that lie just ahead. You can set yourself apart from those firms who insist on acting in ways that tend to reinforce the negatives. And, when there is bad news--don't attempt to hide it. Just as quickly as possible, put an affirmative plan into action that informs all audiences affected. Your message should be forthright about the problems.

Most importantly, you should include a clear conception of what you want to see happen next. Communicating the bad news is a basic professional responsibility. But it is moving forward on the options and solutions that is even more important and makes for true professionalism. It's one way of being respected and remembered for seeing beyond the pain of the day to the opportunities of tomorrow.

While bad news may test the character of the firm--it need not weaken the firm or the relationships that the organization has. How a firm works under pressure in times of crisis can, in fact, become an opportunity to build bonds of evolving new trust.

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