Is Complete Transparency with the Project Customer a Good Thing?

This is a tough one. I always want to be honest and open with a client. When I’m in independent consulting mode, I can do that. When I’m running a client’s project and I’m working for another organization, then I am basically subject to their rules and disclosure. I am not trying to say that organizations are keeping information from project customers, but it does happen from time to time. It may be for good reasons, may be for security reasons, may be for “cover your own behind” reasons.

What are your thoughts? What do you do?… what does your organization do? Should the customer know everything that is going on? At what point?… immediately?… after you fix an issue?… when you have some proposed solutions to an issue? Because that’s what we are really talking about here…when issues or problems arise that are unexpected and could have a potentially big impact on the project and outcome. Otherwise, who cares if the customer knows…if it’s good news – yes – tell them! Bad news…maybe a different story. Let’s consider…

The chosen technical solution isn’t a good fit.

You get deep into the project and you realize that the actual chosen technical solution on a very technical project is not a good fit. It may work, but it will be more costly than expected due to some implementation issues that did not come to light during the requirements phase. Or possibly you even realize that it won’t work at all. Alert the client immediately or work on a Plan B first? Definitely work with your team on a Plan B first. Don’t take long – I’m not talking about a week before notifying the client. I’m talking about 3-4 hours maximum. They need to know, but telling them in the same day is the best… when going to the client with bad news, always try to bring an alternate solution or two so that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Give them some assurance that you are proactively working on next steps. Otherwise, they may be prone to pull the plug on the entire project prematurely – and point the finger straight at you.

Budget issues are affecting project progress.

This may be all on you. Budget issues can creep up and strangle a project quickly. Weekly oversight, forecasting and reforcasting of the project budget is the project manager’s responsibility. A 10% overage is usually acceptable and correctible, if necessary. A 50% overage – which can happen quickly if the budget is not maintained and watch properly – is not acceptable and not likely correctible. And a 50% overage doesn’t happen overnight. So what do you do with the customer? If the budget is causing a potential project shutdown in your organization, then you need to spend a few days in your organization figuring out if there is any way to eat some of the extra costs and keep the project going. If you must go to the client for more funding – do so. When scope creep and incomplete requirements are involved the request is reasonable and easy. If it was clearly project mismanagement, then it will be far more difficult to justify. When you have some alternatives, go to the client. If you can gain funding internally and never need to even talk money with the client, that is the preferred best route.

Organizational shift is changing project focus.

Leave this one to your management – it is their issue and you don’t need to be the guy with the news. In some cases, I realize, there may be no other choice – you may be the chosen one. But if you can get out of being the bad guy – especially for something you had nothing to do with – then get out of it. I once had to deliver news that our CEO was a fraud and had taken his own life the night before as the feds were raiding his house. Only three people at the very top of the organization were involved and knew of the corruption, but my vice president – who was also a friend of mine (and not involved in it) and was several states away so he couldn’t be present – asked me to deliver the bad news to my two client on the 8 projects total that I was currently running for the two of them. Of course I did it – no one else could – but it wasn’t easy. In less extreme cases, it would be better coming from your CEO or similar high level position – assuming they are, in fact, still alive. Mine were not.

Summary / call for input

This is just a list and discussion of three general scenarios where 100% transparency with the client could be in question and how to possibly deal with that handling of the project client situation. There are literally hundreds more, probably thousands, that could be discussed. What situations have you been faced with when needing to relay bad information or project status to the client? How did you handle it? What are your thoughts on 100% client transparency?

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Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. He has authored more than 4,000 expert project management, best practices and business strategy articles, eBooks and videos. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at

One Reply to “Is Complete Transparency with the Project Customer a Good Thing?”

  1. I know exactly how to blow a project out of the water. Just tell the project sponsor that their greatest fear is happening.

    Sometimes a project has hit a pot hole in the road, and these things happen. But if the project sponsor finds out about this minor pot hole, they can make it into a huge sink hole. If they think that what they’re the most worried about is going to happen, they act like the worst has already happened.

    When being transparent, when escalating, we must make sure that we escalate the issue and not escalate our project sponsor.

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