Is it time to zero in on what happens when organisations favour good news over bad? Can we take the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ out and really state it just like it is?

You don’t have to take much of a deep dive in the project landscape to recognise that transparency – or lack thereof – seems to be a recurring theme in both Government and private sector enterprise as 2018 unfolds.

Whether it’s the scrutiny of the Royal Commission into Banking or the relative coyness of major NSW infrastructure projects on sharing information about how they are really progressing, there is an apparent reluctance to embrace full transparency.

But to what end? What are these organisations and government bodies actually hoping to achieve by obfuscating and massaging the ‘truth’ into what is deemed as acceptable, whether it’s to the regulators or general public?

A Good News Bias – Who Gains or Loses?

Recent examples of AMP’s trials and tribulations or the public anger at the ever-growing but opaque expansion of WestConnex show an increasing bias towards only delivering ‘good news’. Downplaying or even omitting the bad news, however, often comes at a significant cost.

AMP’s efforts to present its board report as ‘independent’ when it most probably suggests that the executive had substantial input into the paper developed by Clayton Utz. While its motives are still the subject of enquiry, the outcome of the revelations has led to a number of executives being shown the door (or falling on their swords) coupled with a plummeting share price, incurring the anger and mistrust of shareholders.

Westconnex continues to be a weeping sore for the NSW State Government, both in terms of generating on-going community anger and distrust.  There are other examples too in various forms with other major state government infrastructure projects, such as the Brisbane Airport Link.

Using Westconnex as an example selling an overly positive message of the benefits to the community looks – at best – to be an effort to get ahead of the game. But what they are failing to do is be fully transparent on some of the potentially more contentious outcomes or processes, such as:

  • What was the process to award the contracts and set the tolls?
  • What is the trajectory for the toll increases?
  • Which land and housing will be acquired?
  • What changes to public roads will be effected to funnel cars onto the toll ways etc?

These examples – although quite different in nature – have a couple of things in common: The actual detailed information is hard to find and the leaders of these organisations have adopted the position that a massaged message primarily highlighting the positives is greatly preferable over full transparency. In our view this position is not only wrong, it is also foolhardy.

Taking a Dose of the Bad with the Good

As a team with long-held experience in executing project assurance, we have focused on two very valuable lessons.

Firstly, wherever there is good news there will also most likely be some bad news. It is a real and inevitable consequence of driving change.

Not everything will go right 100% of the time and not everybody will be a ‘winner’ at the end of the day. Look no further than outsourcing projects for examples whereby people will be impacted in a negative way even if the overall outcome will benefit the organisation.

The second lesson is that trying to hide or massage the perceived bad news is a zero sum game. The audience, be they members of Steering Committee, Employees, Shareholders or the General public are not dumb. More often than not, they will always suspect or see through spin if they feel they are not getting the full story.

And this effort to ‘manage’ how they should be feeling about a project will only elicit negative responses like anger, distrust and cynicism.

You Want Trust and Support? Share the Bad News Too

So what happens when all of the news is provided, both the good and the bad?

Generally speaking, we see a trend of how stakeholders respond. Firstly – and often quite rightly – there can be anger. But anger soon dissipates if the audience believes that they have all of the relevant information in full view, with nothing being hidden or obscured.

The cynicism dial heads back the other way – and whilst it may be offered grudgingly, there usually comes an appreciation for the leadership that they are being truthful and bringing everybody into their confidence. This inevitably increases the trust between all parties.

The second thing that occurs is that the ability to collaborate increases. When everybody has accurate information, it enables all members of the value chain to help with solutions.

Not everything may become perfect from that day forth but at least by raising what could be classified as ‘bad’ news, there are more people engaged that can help with solutions to either fix the issue or limit the downside.

And even if there is no change to the solution at least those impacted now have all the relevant information and can start to plan alternate arrangements to limit the impact upon them as individuals or business units.

Nothing to Lose – and Much to Gain

This isn’t a new phenomenon – no doubt the Roman leadership spent many an hour figuring out how to best sell a difficult message. But ‘only the good news’ has become very prominent.

We try not to show our bemusement when we see that not all news is being shared equally – be it good or bad. If you are consistently forthright with sharing the bad news as well as the good, our experience is the worst thing that can happen is you gain a well-earned reputation for being 100% honest and transparent in your dealings with others. And that, to us, is only good news.

Communicating project progress is fundamental to what we do. Contact us here or call 02 9098 6300. We believe that quality thought leadership is worth investing in. Please share our content with your colleagues via any of the links below.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...