You're the test manager on a project where there are many
unresolved critical bugs that could have major customer impacts.
You have not yet been able to test key areas of the system, and the
ship date is now only a week away. The official project status
reports consistently declare the project to be "green" and the
system on schedule to ship. You know that the system is in no fit
state to release and that the bugs will not be fixed in time. In
fact, "everyone" on the project knows this and is talking about it,
but the project manager does not appear to be getting the message.
Either that, or he/she is failing to report the true state of the
system to management. You believe that your reports to the project
manager have clearly described the issues.
You're not the gatekeeper. It's not up
to you to decide whether or not to ship the product. But as the
test manager, it is your job to provide accurate information about
the true state of the system so that management can make an
You feel obligated to speak out
directly, but you know that your message about the true state of
the system is not going to make anyone happy. Perhaps having to
acknowledge it will cause a manager to lose ground with more senior
managers. Perhaps it will jeopardize someone's bonus, or his or her
It is in your interest -- and also in the interests of the
organisation -- that you deliver the message well. You want your
information to be truly heard. You want it to be received as
valuable information so that it can be considered
appropriately. You don't want to damage your
credibility or hurt your future in this company. You don't want the
message recipient to react with anger or disbelief.
Welcome to delivering difficult messages! This is only one
of the many situations where you, as a person in a responsible role
on a software project, may have to deliver a message that is
difficult primarily because the recipient doesn't want to hear it.
You can't control other people's reactions, but with careful
planning and preparation you can craft your delivery of a difficult
message to strengthen the likelihood of a constructive
response.Begin by thinking about the principal considerations for
successful delivery of a difficult message:
- message recipient(s)
- time and place
- message content
- message delivery
First, there's the message recipient -
who should you talk to? Given the scenario described above, should
you talk first to the project manager? If he or she dismisses your
concerns, you need to think about where you go next. Think also
about what you know of the intended message recipient and what
might motivate his or her potential reactions to the information.
Do you believe this to be a person of integrity, or are there
vested interests you need to be wary of? Should the meeting be
one-to-one, or include more people? Do you have any potential
allies in this situation who could help, either by paving the way
for your conversation or by joining it?
Time and Place
Having decided who you're going to talk
to, when and where should you meet? It would be a bad idea to
buttonhole a senior manager in the cafeteria queue and blurt out
your urgent concerns, or spring your message on an unsuspecting
vice president at a project party-though testers have surely done
these things, or worse. You need to pick an appropriate moment and
a quiet place for a manager to hear your message. Try to schedule
the meeting accordingly.
What is the content of your message? What are you going to
say? How sure are you that your information is accurate? What
supporting material do you have? Be scrupulously careful not to go
beyond facts you can prove. If you must state an opinion, be clear
that it is your opinion.
Finally, how are you going to deliver
the message? Your delivery method and style will depend on your
message, but also on your assessment of the person(s) you are going
to talk to. Are you going to sit down and talk or stand at a
whiteboard and illustrate your points with pictures? What else
might you do?
A busy executive may be prepared to give
you full attention for five minutes or less. You'd better be able
to deliver your message to this person succinctly and in
summary-with the details in your back pocket in case you're asked.
Another manager may be detail oriented, not content until every
last fibre of every last thread has been exhaustively explored. You
will need all the details to hand when you meet with him or
Regardless of a recipient's personal
style, it's essential that you stick to a factual narrative that
you can readily support. But what if, in spite of all your
preparations, the manager becomes angry and hostile? Can you manage
your own reactions and help your message be heard? Can you remain
calm and factual in the face of a manager's fury? Sometimes, you
might need to say, "I'll have to get back to you on that," and
excuse yourself. But then you need to go back and finish what you
Come to EuroSTAR!
"Delivering Difficult Messages" is a big
topic and I've only touched on some of the important points in this
blog post. In my tutorial at EuroSTAR 2011, we will explore some
likely project scenarios in depth experientially, using role plays
to practice the interactions between message giver and
recipient(s), and sharing tips and techniques from our own
experiences and observations. We'll talk about common pitfalls and
how to avoid them. We'll also discuss a model that can help our
understanding of difficult interactions and help us prepare better
when we have to deliver bad news.
Delivering unwelcome news is never fun,
but we can have fun exploring and practicing how to do it. Come
prepared to practice with real situations that have happened for
real testers, including current scenarios brought by