Ask A PM: How Do I Let My Project Sponsor Know a Project is Running Late?

Elizabeth Harrin | November 19, 2019

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“Dear Elizabeth: My project is running late to the point that our delivery date has moved significantly. I want to make sure that we’ve considered all the possible options for recovering the project before I finalize the new schedule. What should I consider before I deliver the news to my project sponsor?”

 

I hope that the date change doesn’t come as a surprise to your project sponsor. Projects get late a day at a time, so I expect you would have seen this coming, and I hope you have been warning your sponsor that any delays would likely impact the delivery date.

Of course, you might have had an unforeseen dramatic issue that has pushed your delivery date back by months in one swoop, but project slippage creeps up on us bit by bit. 

Whether you’ve warmed up your sponsor to the idea that a delay is coming or not, there are some things you can do to prepare for that conversation.

 

1. Review all the options

You talk about making sure you’ve considered all the possible options for recovering your original timeline. You should be able to talk about what you have done and what you have not been able to do when you meet your sponsor. Otherwise, they’ll only ask you to go away and try to make some time back, so you might as well go into the conversation being able to outline what you’ve already done.

For example:

What tasks can you do in parallel? This adds additional risk because often, you need a task to finish before another task can start. However, if the team (or the sponsor, if the impact is significant enough) is prepared to accept potential rework, you can run tasks in parallel to cut time.

What extra resource can you get on the project? Adding resources costs money, so you might not be able to do this if you are on a tight budget.  You’re going to be paying for your current resources for extra time as you are running late, so there could be some value in spending that money now on additional help and getting the project closer to the original delivery date. 

Note: Sometimes, adding extra people slows down the work as experienced hands have to onboard and train new starters. Think carefully about who you add and what they are going to contribute at this point in the project realistically.

What scope items can you remove? You’ll need the sponsor’s approval before you start dumping scope items into a potential Phase 2 or future release. However, it is worth considering what you could easily split off from this main project and deliver separately – if that would have a positive effect on the overall timescales. Cutting the wrong thing means you might not save any time, and it might take longer!

 

2. Make a confident plan

You’re going to your sponsor to tell them that they can’t have what they want when they want it. This is not a conversation you can have every month. Make sure that your new plan is reasonable and realistic. Ideally, once you’ve got approval to work on the new dates, you shouldn’t deviate from those. I know it’s easy to say and hard to do, especially on projects where your team is not full-time, and you’re relying on large amounts of goodwill to get any resource to do anything at all. But do your best because it’s damaging to your credibility to have to keep going back and asking for extra time. 

Discuss the new plan with your team. Get input on the schedule dates, and if you can get the agreement in writing for them to ring-fence their time to deliver to those dates, all the better.

 

3. Get stakeholder support

One of the most common reasons for project delay from the project managers I speak to regularly is that resources don’t do what they need to do. Tasks are late because people haven’t done their jobs. 

Perhaps that’s because they are too busy on other, higher priority work. Maybe the manager won’t give them time to do your project work, or they don’t understand what they need to do. In a virtual team, it could be because they don’t see you daily, and they do see someone else, so that person’s work gets to the top of the To-Do list. Sometimes it’s an issue with estimating – they’ve not done a task before or had to work to a fixed deadline, and they estimated inaccurately. 

Or you could work with some disorganized and unmotivated people!

Whatever the reason, try to secure support from your wider stakeholder group. Share the proposed schedule with line managers for your team members. Ask for their support. 

At your meeting with your sponsor, as them to email line managers and stress the importance of making sure their team members are adequately contributing. Make work a priority for the management teams involved in this project at all levels.

 

4. Prepare for the meeting

You should have a clear understanding of how the project got to be running behind, and what you are going to do differently going forward to make sure that the new dates are achievable.

Make a list of all the things you’ve done to recover the schedule. Be prepared to justify your actions, especially if it has taken a long time for you to get to this point. Ideally, you should be telling your sponsor very quickly after you’ve noticed the issue with the deadline. Avoid the situation where your sponsor is forced to ask you why it has taken you so long to bring them the information.

Get your thoughts clear, know what you are asking, and expect to come out of the meeting with a decision.

 

5. Follow up after the meeting

Now you’ve got approval to work on the new schedule. Share the revised dates with the team, along with any other guidance or requests that have come from the sponsor. And do your absolute best to stick to the new plan. That means more status updates, more support for team members, more communication with their line managers. Praise work that gets completed. Demonstrate and celebrate each tiny bit of progress that’s made towards hitting that new date. 

 

It’s not easy to break the news of a significant project delay, especially if the client is external. Be honest, be transparent about your actions, and be realistic about what you can achieve now. Sponsors don’t like bad news, but they like surprises even less. Keep communicating so that your sponsor can feel confident that this new schedule is achievable – and if it isn’t, given them a warning as early as you can.

 

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

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