How to communicate risk and empower your clients

Communicating project risk can be tough, but providing multiple options for next steps makes it easier for your team and your client to decide on the best way forward.
Woman's hand stops a row of wood dominos from falling.

Introduction

Building software is a step-by-step process. As a project manager, you can and should have a plan, of course — but as your development team works to solve complicated problems, get user feedback, and meet client goals, you can run into issues and uncover unknowns that put your project budget, deadline, or deliverable at risk.

Communicating risk is not easy, especially on projects that have a lot at stake. When risks occur on projects, which they will, the desire to keep everyone happy can get in the way. Communicating the risks clearly and effectively to your clients and stakeholders as soon as you identify them is the kindest thing you can do for a project. Just like any skill, this communication takes practice. 

What to do when a project is at a risk

When I see risk on the horizon, I’ve found it helps to step outside the project for a moment and just write it out. I follow a pretty simple formula that is a great starting point for communicating tough problems to clients so we can work through them together:

  1. Gather the dataThis is the most important step. Talk with the development team to make sure you understand the details of what happened, why, and what our potential options are for moving forward. 
  2. Create the messageWithin your message to the client, start with an overview that explains the issue. Incorporate all the data you gathered from the team. Keep it straightforward and factual.
  3. Empower the client – Remember you can’t solve the problem alone. Your client is your partner, so make sure to involve them early and often in every important decision about their product, including how to mitigate risk.

The anatomy of risk communication

So what goes into your message? Every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end.

Give an overview (beginning)

  • State the issue 
  • Explain the why
  • Reassure we have a plan / options

State the options (middle)

  • First option: Stay within budget but rethink scope
  • Everything and anything in between
  • Last option: Keep the original scope but rethink budget

Empower others (end)

  • Invite collaboration
  • Ask for thoughts or other ideas
  • Set up a conversation to discuss options


Why does this work? By keeping the start of the message factual, you can remove a lot of the emotion that can cloud decisions moving forward. I find it’s important to offer options on both ends of the budget/scope spectrum, because some clients will want to prioritize staying within their original budget, and some clients will prioritize the original scope even if it means adding more budget to work through an issue. Most often though, there is something in the middle that works best for everyone. 

Finally, don’t forget to involve the client. The best solutions come from inviting others to offer their own ideas, and you then empower the client to be a part of the project and all decision-making.

Last modified on June 16, 2022