Delivering Difficult News

Earlier this year I was asked if some engineers from our team could help build a newly prioritized project. Doing so meant putting our team’s current work at substantial risk of failure. I knew canceling our project was the right thing to do because the incoming request was more important and because continuing our current work meant spreading our team too thin. Our team had put in a lot of time so I wanted to share the news empathetically, but delivering and receiving difficult news is never easy.

I started by talking to my product manager. They quickly understood and helped me plan how we would deliver the news to our team. We drafted a list of points to communicate. Having a list was important because we didn’t want to leave out part of the message when speaking in different places or with different people. We detailed what was changing, why, what would happen next, and honestly that we made the decision. It was important to include we made the decision to avoid an “us vs. them” situation with the people who asked for our help. We shared the plan with our managers, then moved on to telling the team. We wanted to tell them as soon as possible out of respect and so they wouldn’t hear an incomplete message through some other channel.

Having drafted the message we scheduled a 15 minute chat with each person on the team. These meetings took a full day and this process was slower than telling the team all at once, but it gave them a place to ask questions openly without the pressure that might come with speaking up in a bigger meeting. We took two or three minutes to share the message, and spent the rest of the time answering their questions earnestly. We gladly spent more time with people who had additional concerns as we wanted them to know we cared about them and their work. One person requested a retrospective, which we committed to having later in the week.

Later that day we had a broader team meeting where we repeated the news the same way and answered questions from the group. This let the team settle into the decision together. By now the news wasn’t new to anyone, which meant the collective response was not one of shock. The people that initially requested our help attended the meeting so they could answer questions and explain why the new project was important for our users and product. And of course we held a retrospective later in the week, as promised.

After the team meeting we sent a brief email with the same message to our team and adjacent people working with us. The idea was to ensure people who couldn’t attend earlier meetings received the message.

While our team was disappointed that we cancelled the project, they understood the circumstances and took the news well. More than one person told us they appreciated how we communicated the cancellation. We helped with the other project, and worked to deliver a new, well received, project from our team some time later.

It’s worth planning how you communicate difficult news. Our approach was to be honest, clear, and consistent. We were quick to communicate, accountable for the decision, gave everyone a chance to ask questions in a low pressure environment, repeated the message consistently in more than one place, and gave people multiple chances to share their concerns. We then worked to address them where we were able to do so.

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