Is no news good news?

Apr 26 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

The one thing I hear more than anything else from project managers is, "no news is good news". But is it true?

When you're a busy project manager, or your team is scattered hither and yon and you're constantly tethered to one electronic device or another, a little peace is a good thing. There is even some rationale to the idea that it is desirable (although it's probably been a while since you've experienced a break in the torrent for reasons of comparison).

If I've made one mistake in my management career, it's clinging to the idea that a lack of bad news gushing like a geyser means that there's no bad news to be found. And it's an error that has bitten me more than once.

What's taken me so long to learn (and I pass this on to you out of the goodness of my heart) is that an absence of information isn't the good news, it's the absence of unpleasant surprises. Ironically, you need a lot of news to make that judgment.

Rather than not hearing anything from anyone, a good manager receives a manageable stream of good information they can actually use to prevent, mitigate or at least see coming in enough time to duck and cover.

Notice that the word we're using is "information" and not "data". This is an important distinction. Data is raw numbers. You have a certain number of things coming in and going out but by itself it doesn't mean anything good or bad. Information is data with contextó"We have X things backed up and that's bad news because it means we'll miss a deadline".

Data is important, but it's not enough.

Rather than a lack of information, then, a good project team handles information in three ways to make it both useful and manageable:

1. Information should be accurate: you can't do much without accurate information, and sometimes this means not accepting data at face value. Take deliverable dates, for instance. Very often you don't hear that you'll miss a deadline until you miss the deadline. "Almost done" is really hard to quantify.

2. Offer context along with data: practice adding the words "and what that means to us isÖ." To your updates and information. Just because one person (usually the person most familiar with the data) understands all the implications doesn't mean everyone else does. Everyone on the team needs to understand what's going on.

3. If information isn't there, go after it: and here we come to the topic of proactivity. A highly functional team has multiple ways of providing information. It's not enough to wait for the weekly status update. You need to have multiple ways to pass on information. Sometimes you need to be able to share it with the team when it occurs to you or crops up. Sometimes you need it stored where the people who can act on the information can see it on their own. Here's where shared file sites, common databases and the like really prove their value.

Of course what's really critical is an environment where the people who have the information are comfortable, or at least willing, to provide information rather than have it pried out of them. You also need to have team members who will proactively seek information (knowing it might not be good news) in order to see trouble coming. To be fair, going after information can also calm nerves and reduce suspicion on the team, and that's a good thing.

So it's not a lack of news that is the good news. It's being able to get it in a form that's useful, in time to be actionable and in multiple forms.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.