Ask a PM: How to Tell a Client You’re Behind on the Project You Just Took Over

Elizabeth Harrin | February 5, 2019

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Dear Elizabeth: I have taken on an in-flight project. We’re about halfway through, and I think we need to make changes to the schedule. Specifically, we need more time. The client has already signed off on the original deadlines, and I don’t think they will take the news well. How can I break it to them?

It’s always hard when you pick up a project midway through. You weren’t there when the original deadlines were put together, and to be fair to the previous project manager, those dates might have seemed totally reasonable at the time. However, you’ve been left in a situation where you can’t hit the published timetable, and it’s going to make you look like the bad guy because you’re the one breaking the news. It must feel like the project has “failed” on your watch.

The way I see it, you have three choices:

  1. Hide under the bed and hope you magically make up the time.
  2. Find creative ways to make up the time by fast-tracking, crashing the schedule, or descoping activity.
  3. Tell the client you need more time.

I hope you have already ruled out Option 1!

Let’s look at the other choices.

Make Up the Time

There are ways to deliver the same amount of work faster.

Fast tracking is a technique where you make the decision to do tasks in parallel when you would normally do the work in sequence.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of DIY SOS, this is what they do to renovate a house. All the trades pile into the house and work together and around each other. When we’ve had building work done on our house, the builders came in first, then the electrician, followed by a bit more builders, and then a visit from the plumber until eventually everyone had done their bit. We didn’t have decorators painting ceilings while concrete was being laid for the floor, but TV renovation programs show it can be done.

To fast track tasks on your schedule, look at what you currently have in sequence. What would be the risk of carrying out that work in parallel? For example, it could mean developing two parts of the software at the same time and working closely together to ensure they still function adequately. It could mean testing while some parts of the development aren’t finished and making changes in a more agile way than you were expecting. Talk to your team about what you could force down the fast track.

Crashing your schedule is another option. This is where you add more people to the project or get the existing people to work more hours. There’s a cost involved in increasing the resources on a project, and your company might be prepared to carry that if the cost of telling the client about the delay is too high. For example, if there is a big reputational risk for the firm by not hitting this particular deadline, your manager might be prepared to put some more people on the tasks to help speed things up.

If neither of these schedule compression techniques helps you save enough time, you could take activity out of scope. You’d hit the original deadline, but you would deliver a worse quality product to the client. When I see teams facing this choice, they often choose to descope testing time and cut the amount of time allocated for system testing; often that is a risky approach.

Talk to the Client

Ultimately, I don’t think you will get away with not having a conversation with the client. Even if you plan to fast track or crash your schedule, it is worth letting the client know now that you are taking that approach. Then, if you aren’t able to claw back enough time, they have had an early warning of the delay and know that you have already tried something proactively.

I get that it will be a difficult conversation. Be evidence based. Go back to the original estimates. Look at what assumptions were made because I bet they don’t hold true right now. Find reasons for the delay and craft a message that is honest but also gives the impression that you know what is happening and why it is happening. When the client asks how the delay happened, the worst possible answer is, “I have no idea.” You are being paid to manage the project, so they need to have confidence that even if it’s going a bit wrong, you still know the causes and have some solutions to offer.

That brings us to solutions. During your client conversation, you need to set out what their options are. They could agree to descope functionality. They could agree to pay more. They could agree to a change in the date. Provide them with choices so they don’t feel you have forced their hand.

Book this conversation as early as you can. I love this quote from Colin Powell, “Bad news is not like wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” In my experience, clients hate surprises above all. They may be able to tolerate the delay and manage around it, but only if you give them enough notice. There’s no need to wait until your next regular client review meeting. Call them up now and get something in the diary as soon as possible.

The conversation needs to be about this issue specifically, and not in a large public setting. Telling someone in the project board meeting that the project is running a month behind is not a good choice. They’ll feel as if you are springing the news on them in an environment where they aren’t able to respond freely. Talking to them face-to-face is better than over the phone, so go and meet them if you can.

In this situation, it looks as if the dates will slip. I’m not sure that schedule compression will give you the time gains you need, so negotiate a new completion date. After that, it’s most important that you stick to it. Look back at the team’s performance and where estimates haven’t been enough. Use that information to predict forward. If you haven’t been able to hit the deadlines up until this point, where do you need to put extra time to avoid getting into this situation again in a couple of months? Do a complete overhaul of your schedule and forecasts before you meet the client so you can present a realistic picture of what you can achieve.

Then, manage the work tightly and keep everything on track, because the client will be deeply unhappy if you’re having the same discussion again before the project closes. Have confidence in your proposed schedule and that will make your conversation easier, but be prepared to flex your approach depending on what is important to the client.

Discuss