In a client-supplier relationship, communication is of paramount importance. And good communication requires transparency. A supplier in charge of a doomed project telling their client that all is going well would not be doing a very good job. Similarly, a client whose budget has been cut telling a supplier that all is well would also not be delivering the right message.

Even if both sides are transparent with one another, a message can sometimes be difficult to deliver successfully.

It is something we IT professionals sometimes forget. We are trained to think in binary; we are geared towards efficiency; we can, at times, present information in a fashion that is efficient, clear, concise and accurate, yet may be hard for a client to swallow. Not everyone thinks in the same way, and that clinical efficiency can be seen as confrontational, or as unwillingness to cooperate. Our clients are not necessarily trained to think like us, and do not always react well to such raw information. That does not change the importance of transparency: if the message is bad news for the client, the client still needs to hear it. However, we would do well to dress it up a little for consumption.

Bad news (the typical example of which being a delay to delivery) is very often something a client does not want to hear. The reason for that might be that their own stakeholders will give them a hard time, that a market opportunity is strongly time-constrained and a delay will make them miss it, that they do not trust a supplier to do a good job, or any other. Whatever the reason may be, we as consultants need to take that potential sensitivity into account when delivering the message. We work hard to build a relationship and we do not want to tarnish it. We do need to present the message in a way that plays into the client’s narrative. At least, we need to present it with evidence that we have done everything possible to mitigate, preferably giving it a positive outlook, too.

An example of bad news presented matter-of-factly: “What you are asking us to do cannot be done in the given timeline.” The above seems to be missing any appreciation of what the impact to the client might be and how important this date is to them. It is also devoid of any indication of problem solving, risk management or care about the outcome. Finally, it lacks a revised date.

Suggested way to present that message: “We made progress, yet there were obstacles, and we have not progressed as much as we wanted. The current timeline to complete that piece of work looks like this, based on empirical evidence. We are doing a, b and c () to try and speed things up. We are also exploring avenues x, y and z () and hope they help us be even quicker. We will have more data by this time next week/sprint/update to confirm how quickly we are really progressing, which will allow us to produce a revised timeline.”

(*) a, b, c, x, y and z might be: talking to another team who has relevant expertise, halting another piece of work to focus on this one, negotiating a scope adjustment, or anything else applicable to a particular situation.

The aim of the above is to take a piece of bad news, coat it with good will and back it up with evidence to give it a positive spin and make it as close to a piece of good news as possible. It is not a set formula. It may not work, certainly not with everyone. But it does illustrate that, despite the apparent lack of progress, we show professionalism and dedication. It also projects an air of control across the piece, which tends to reassure the client.

It is also worth noting the emphasis on gathering more data to revise projections. For someone used to Agile working, that goes without saying: we estimate, we execute, we measure how much we have delivered against the estimation and adjust the forecast based on actual velocity, rather than assumed capacity. Such constant adjustments become so instinctive that we often forget that many clients tend to only see or remember the initial projection – a projection that may not fit their desired timeline. We also mistakenly take the understanding of Agile for granted, but if the echelons of management tend to be aware of it as a concept, they do not necessarily grasp what Agile means in practice. In reality, what we want to say is: “This is the current projection, based on current figures. It is only a snapshot. It will evolve and we will give you a revision frequently.” Implying that is not enough.

Making communication work is an ever-evolving journey. The supplier tries to understand how the client thinks, as much as they try to be understood by the client. It can be long and arduous a task. It certainly is continuous and dynamic. And since everyone is different, there is no silver bullet. It is worth investing into it, though: communication is the basis of trust, and without trust, there is no success.