Uncomfortable Conversation #2: The Project has some Cost Overruns. Big Ones.

Uncomfortable conversations series 2

We’re over budget. Way, way over budget.

The Situation:

You’re three quarters of the way through your project and you’ve just had a major setback. You underestimated the costs to get to this phase but the project is useless if only partially finished. Your cost overruns will be more than 20% of your total project budget, even with the contingencies you built in your initial estimate.

What you would like to say:

  • Perhaps if we didn’t always have to hire the lowest bidder for subcontracted work we might have had a chance.
  • It’s Internal Technology’s fault! (Everybody’s favorite fallback.)
  • If any of the components weren’t already held together with duct tape our idea would have worked.

Needless to say, none of these approaches will win friends and influence people.  And waiting to have this conversation does you no favors. You can bet that those who opposed this project in the first place, or those who just aren’t fans of you or your team, are waiting with knives drawn and absolutely have gotten wind of the overruns. If you don’t “beat” them to the decision makers, you lose.  You want to be the one to tell the story first, because otherwise your detractors will be taking out a billboard to tell it for you.

What you need to be prepared with:

  • A carefully vetted budget for the remaining tasks.
  • Suggestions on the remaining steps which could be cut, created as beta versions or scaled back in order to try to recoup some costs. Would adding time to the expected completion points of various project segments allow you to cut costs? (i.e. reducing overtime costs etc.)
  • Your original cost benefit analysis of the project and a revised version with the new budget figured in.
  • Proof of any additional productivity, sales results, or cost consolidations that have already occurred during the project implementation (which are directly due to the project). Look for numbers, not just “feel good” stories.   Revert to “feel good” stories only if there aren’t any numbers yet.
  • A firm idea of the “why’s” and “how’s” of what happened. Was it a true miscalculation? Were there so many change orders that the project grew or changed in scope? Did you hire the wrong subcontractor or make a mistake in calculating what the cost of each element of the project would be? What steps have you taken to prevent this going forward or are you still moving forward on hope alone?
  • Create a “Lessons Learned” list, making sure you’ve taken all snark or emotion out of it. Do any of these lessons indicate a similar issue may arise as you move towards project completion? Have you identified any potential future risks?

Having the conversation:

  1. Have a meeting first with the Project Sponsor to go over what has happened. Make sure they are fully aware of what you’ve done to correct things, what the new budget looks like, and any wins you have had. Show them the wins on paper or better yet, live. You need a true believer when the going gets rough. If the project sponsor isn’t a true believer, try to locate some of your allies on the management committee and go over your plan with them.
  2. Ask for the meeting with the executive team to apprise them of the situation. Be Calm. Be Factual. Be Precise.  Here is where we are. Here is what went wrong. Here is what is working. Here is how we plan to get it back on track. Here is what we’ve learned and how we will prevent it from happening again. Here is our best estimate of the costs. Here is our expected benefit of this project. Here are some of the savings/revenue/positive changes already resulting from our work.
  3. Use visuals. Clear, simple visuals of the budget, the changes, and the new budget are key. Show the new cost/benefit analysis (with the new charges) as well.
  4. Take responsibility for not catching the issue sooner.  Ask for their support of the new budget.
  5. Shut up.

What to expect:

  • As we’ve said before, once you have the conversation, you have to somewhat relinquish control of the results.
  • Understand that while there may be real consternation at the increased cost aspects of the project, you will also likely get reactions based on the internal politics between the members of the team you presented to.  If they are jockeying for political survival, they may overemphasize the “disastrous” aspects of the costs or may attack leadership or managerial skills, of you, your team or others that were part of the project. Others, surprisingly, may downplay the cost issue, perhaps because your project serves their needs for something they have planned for a later date.  It’s rare that you get a “pure” response in a meeting like this.
  • The best strategy is to have a firm strategy on how to go forward. After the team has had the time to absorb your initial message, ask for their support on the newly renegotiated timetable, budget and plan.
  • Increase communications on the project’s progress in relation to budget as part of your follow up to the committee. Determine if a weekly, monthly or daily update would be appropriate to the current scope of the project and develop a simple “at-a-glance” report that can be sent out.

How have you delivered this sort of bad news before? How did it go? Please share in the comments section!

Tim Ferris believes that “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” The Uncomfortable Conversations series on 52weekturnaround gives you the tools to have the difficult conversations that you encounter as a change agent. See the series here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

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