Delivering bad news is something that most people are not good at. Either we're trying to ease the pain of the message for the recipient or trying to protect ourselves from that person's wrath. It's a human impulse to shield those we care about from distressing information and it's equally human to avoid being the bearer of unpleasant news.
This same behavior can be observed in the business and IT worlds. Research conducted by Jaclyn Jensen of George Washington University found that as projects get closer to completion, decision makers are more likely to conceal negative information. In this study, groups of undergraduates were confronted with a significant problem in the fictional business projects they were working on. If a project was 90% completed, 81% failed to mention anything negative. However, if the project was only 10% complete, 37.5% avoided mention of the problem.
Robert Plant, an associate professor of computer information systems at the University of Miami School of Business Administration, had an epiphany about telling painful truths when he was dealing with hospice care for his father. He was impressed by the way his dad was treated and by the staff's approach to delivering bad news. He said the news was "delivered in a straightforward yet thoughtful manner that defuses the anxiety and even eases some of the pain."
Previously he was aware that medical-center CIOs who are MDs tended to be better at stating unpleasant truths about IT systems than non-medical CIOs. So he became more interested in learning how medical students are trained in the skill of delivering bad news. The protocol he uncovered is called SPIKES (setting up the interview; assessing the patient's perception; obtaining the patient's invitation; giving knowledge; addressing the patient's emotions; and establishing a treatment strategy).
So Plant adapted this protocol for his executive education classes to help CIOs learn how to speak difficult truths about legacy systems to CEOs. Here's a summary of his seven-step plan, fuller explanations from him are available at his Harvard Business Review blog :
Understand the CEO's perceptions of the problem
Hold the calls
Establish a business ally
Stick to the facts, focus on the risks not the technology
Insist on immediate action
Have a clear next step
The truth is, avoiding bad news never works anyway. Eventually the problems become great enough that they can't be hidden. So it's wise to learn how to do this gracefully. As Plant says, "Truth is a kind of medicine."