This Month’s Pattern *

45 News Improvement

Bad news is not conveyed accurately upward through the organization.

In some organizations, bad news does not get reported upward at all. More often, bad news is improved as it travels upward from one level to the next. Consider the example shown above.

News improvement is a destructive pattern because it deprives decision-makers of needed information, and this can lead to bad decisions (or missed decisions) and outcomes that are worse than they need be. There are many famous examples of bad decisions that could have been avoided had information flowed more effectively. In the last quarter-century, perhaps the decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, is the best illustration of this pattern.

According to author Diane Vaughan in her book The Challenger Launch Decision[1], engineers from Morton-Thiokol recommended against the launch due to concerns about the cold-weather performance of O-ring seals between the sections of the solid rocket motors. After Marshall Space Flight Center officials criticized Thiokol for its recommendation, senior Thiokol managers reversed the recommendation of their engineers and approved the launch. The fact that Thiokol had initially recommended against launching in cold weather was not relayed by the Marshall managers to the senior NASA program manager. The decision to proceed with the launch in unusually cold weather led to the deaths of the crew and the destruction of the spacecraft.

Thankfully, not all instances of news improvement have such tragic consequences. When you see this pattern in projects, the most typical symptom is surprise, and the typical consequences are missed deadlines and expectations that aren’t met.

Project surprises often follow a story like this: After a few months of development, with successful interim deliverables along the way, the new system is slated for the final round of testing, with shipment in about a month. After a planning session for the last development activities, the project manager reports that an additional month of work will be needed before the system will be ready to ship. Needless to say, the senior managers who hear this are appalled. How could the team get so close to the scheduled completion date before realizing that it was not going to make it?

The usual answer is that many members of a team know much earlier that the deadline is unrealistic. They may say so to their supervisors, or even express concerns in their own status reports. But somewhere between the front line and the senior managers, their disbelief in the project’s schedule is filtered out of the project’s stream of reports.

Suppressing bad news can turn solvable problems into unsolvable problems. The few people who might be able to do something about a surprise slip—the senior managers who control the resources and who set external expectations for the project—are deprived of the opportunity to take corrective action until so late in the process that all options for corrective action have expired. Had they known early enough about the imbalance between the work to be done and the resources and time available, they could have provided more resources or re-scoped the effort or extended the schedule early enough to avoid last-minute slippage. It’s not certain that they would have fixed the problem if they had heard the bad news immediately, but it is certain that they cannot fix a problem that they never hear about. Early warning is essential.

So, why does this happen? The most common cause is fear. No one enjoys hearing bad news about the people and things they care about. Quite often, managers allow their normal human dislike of bad news to affect their reaction to it, and more importantly, their treatment of those who report it. “Don’t shoot the messenger” is the mantra we invoke against this behavior, but it often doesn’t work. If an organization’s management culture—by its actions more than its words—makes it clear that bearers of bad news will suffer, news improvement becomes inevitable.

There is at least one other type of management-induced news improvement. Team members typically know the project is in trouble long before they can prove it. In some cultures, a team member who declares a problem with meeting a target date is likely to be met with the famous line, “How do you know for sure that you can’t make it?” Not wanting to be viewed as whiners or cowards, team members say nothing until calamity is inarguable (and often, inevitable).[2]

What can you do to improve your organization’s ability to quickly and accurately convey bad news upwardly? Most of the solution falls to you, the manager. You not only have to declare that you want to hear bad news immediately, you have to behave that way. At the very least, this means separating your reaction to bad news into two components: (1) determining what to do about it, and (2) figuring out how it happened. Focus first on the former. Don’t immediately dive into an investigation of why whatever went wrong happened. Instead, concentrate on enabling your team, including the bearer of the bad news, to come up with a “get well” plan and to put it into action. Your emphasis on constructive corrective action is less likely to be viewed as criticism or punishment by your organization, and therefore, it is less likely to cause people to suppress or distort bad news in the future. Eventually, you do need to do a root-cause analysis so similar mishaps can be avoided, but this can wait until the situation has been corrected. By that time, people generally feel much less defensive, and bad news can be addressed rather than improved.


  1. Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  2. See also Pattern 46, “Telling the Truth Slowly.”


* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.

events

Hilversum, Mastering the Requirements Process
6-May-2014 to 8-May-2014

James Robertson presents Mastering the Requirements Process for Adept Events. Details and registration: English - Dutch.

Bergen, Mastering the Requirements Process
13-May-2014 to 15-May-2014

Suzanne Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. For more information on this popular course, contact Den Norske Dataforeningen

Brussels, Mastering the Requirements Process
10-Jun-2014 to 12-Jun-2014

James Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. Please contact I.T.Works for details. 

Brussels, Mastering the Requirements Process
17-Sep-2014 to 19-Sep-2014

James Robertson teaches the popular Mastering the Requirements Process. Please contact IT Works for details and registration. 

Brussels, MRP part 2
9-Oct-2014 to 10-Oct-2014

Brussels, Mastering Business Analysis
09-Oct-2014 to 10-Oct-2014

James Robertson teaches Mastering Business Analysis. Contact IT Works for details of this course.  

Oslo, Mastering the Requirements Process part 2
13-Oct-2014 to 14-Oct-2014

Suzanne Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process part 2. Details for this advanced class at Den Norske Dataforeningen.

Hilversum, Mastering the Requirements Process
14-Oct-2014 to 16-Oct-2014

James Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. For details please contact Adept Events. Dutch description, or in English.

Oslo, Mastering the Requirements Process
15-Oct-2014 to 17-Oct-2014

Mastering the Requirements Process with Suzanne Robertson. Contact Den Norske Dataforeignen for details. 

Rome, Mastering the Requirements Process
20-Oct-2014 to 22-Oct-2014

Rome, Mastering Business Analysis
23-Oct-2014 to 24-Oct-2014

James Robertson teaches Mastering Business Analysis. Contact Technology Transfer for details of this course.  

Hilversum, Mastering Business Analysis
10-Nov-2014 to 11-Nov-2014

James Robertson teaches the popular Mastering Business Analysis. Details from Adept Events in English or Dutch.

London, Mastering the Requirements Process
11-Nov-2014 to 13-Nov-2014

James Archer teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. For details and registration, please contact IRM UK.

Wellington, Mastering the Requirements Process part 2
24-Nov-2014 to 25-Nov-2014

Suzanne Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process part 2. Details for this advanced class at Software Education.

Wellington, Mastering the Requirements Process
26-Nov-2014 to 28-Nov-2014

The ever popular Mastering the Requirements Process. For details please contact Software Education.  

Melbourne, Mastering the Requirements Process
1-Dec-2014 to 3-Dec-2014

Suzanne Robertson presents Mastering the Requirements Process. Please contact Software Education  for details and registration. 

Sydney, Mastering the Requirements Process
1-Dec-2014 to 3-Dec-2014

in depth

Complete Systems Analysis - the Workbook, the Textbook, the Answers by Suzanne Robertson and James Robertson is now in e-book format. It is available as a Kindle book, from InformIT, or you can download a sample chapter.


Tom DeMarco's speculative novel, Andronescu's Paradox is now available as a from Amazon or Nook.  It will be released in German 2Q2014 by Hanser Verlag. 

"This war isn't going to blow anything up, only turn everything off."



Tim Lister was one of the keynote presenters during Agile 2013. Tim’s talk “Forty Years of Trying to Play Well With Others” was a big hit. In this interview Tim shares some of the highlights of his talk.
Lister, Keynote at Agile 2013Tim Lister was one of the keynote presenters during Agile 2013. Tim’s talk “Forty Years of Trying to Play Well With Others” was a big hit. In this interview Tim shares some of the highlights of his talk
was one of the keynote presenters during Agile 2013. Tim’s talk “Forty Years of Trying to Play Well With Others” was a big hit. In this interview Tim shares some of the highlights of his talk - See more at: http://podcasts.bigvisible.com/?p=255#sthash.G1hS2edS.dp
was one of the keynote presenters during Agile 2013. Tim’s talk “Forty Years of Trying to Play Well With Others” was a big hit. In this interview Tim shares some of the highlights of his talk - See more at: http://podcasts.bigvisible.com/?p=255#sthash.G1hS2edS.dpuf
Tim Lister, Keynote at Agile 2013


Announcing the publication this month of the third edition of Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister's iconic text, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.  The book is available now from Amazon or directly from Addison Wesley. See press release on Business Wire.



Read Tom DeMarco's essay from the July/August issue of Software Magazine.  It's entitled, Bells, Whistles, Power, and the Requirements Process.



In this podcast James speaks of his experience in the profession of architecture and how it provides inspiration for his work on innovation and creativity. He also discusses the role of the business analyst in agile teams. Listen to the podcast.


There are now seven books by Guild authors available as ebooks, either as Nook Books or as Kindle Books.  



Shane Hastie's interview with the authors and book excerpt: Mastering the Requirements Process on InfoQ.


The preparation course for the IREB "Certified Professional for Requirements Engineering" is now available as video training. Learn at home or any other place. Including questionnaires to prepare you for the multiple choice test.