No matter how organized you are and how well you planned, project delays happen.

A project can be delayed for a number of reasons. A lot of those are outside of your control.

What you can control, however, is how you respond. How well you communicate a project delay to stakeholders and clients can determine whether you manage the next project or not.

Let’s talk about how to break the news effectively.

Why project delays happen

Project delays are a serious issue. They can take you over budget, cause you to miss your deadlines, and sometimes derail the project so far that it gets cancelled.

Here is why project delays happen.

Unclear project requirements

If project requirements aren’t communicated clearly at the beginning, you’ll just need answers later.

You can ask for clarification and delay the project while waiting for an answer.

Or, you can take a guess and then risk redoing a part of the project.

Either way, you’re likely to run into a delay if you don’t get enough clarity up front.

Changed project scope

A lot of project delays are caused by clients or stakeholders changing the project scope.

When you change course in the middle of a project, you need time to create a new plan. Sometimes, that means going back to previous steps and redoing work to make it fit the new requirements.

Inadequately planned timeline

Projects also get delayed because of inadequately planned timelines.

Your timeline hinges on a lot of estimates that could be wrong. Maybe you allotted 5 days for a task that actually takes 10, or you might have missed a couple of steps along the way.

Timeline errors come in all shapes and sizes.

Lack of communication with stakeholders

You’re not the only one that needs to sign off on major milestones.

Late or nonexistent communication with stakeholders means they need longer to review the updates you send them. They might also be less engaged with your project because you haven’t touched base enough.

This also applies if you forget to reach out when you need to. Sending them past-due information means that their response is going to be later than you want, too.

Resources suddenly becoming unavailable

Your project relies on a lot of different resources.

If team members quit, get sick, or are pulled to another project, your project can quickly get behind.

People aren’t your only resources, either. If a software tool breaks down, a partnering company goes out of business, or your budget gets cut, those resource issues can all cause major delays.

External vendors not delivering on time

Successful project completion often relies on external vendors. If they deliver late or fail to live up to expectations, it takes extra time to fix the issue and move forward.

Unpredictable changes

There are also unpredictable changes (such as natural disasters) that can delay projects. Just think about how many projects were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You already know that things are going to come up, and it’s impossible to predict what those issues will look like. As a project manager, it’s up to you to expect the unexpected and adjust as needed.

How to communicate delays in project management in 4 steps

Every project manager will, at one point or another, be in charge of a project that has been delayed. You can’t avoid it.

That’s why it’s so important to learn how to effectively communicate a project delay.

Here’s how to get the message across:

1: Let stakeholders know right away

Don’t wait until a problem gets out of hand to bring it up.

This isn’t negotiable. Tell stakeholders as soon as you know a delay is possible. Waiting too long makes it seem like you’re not on top of the project.

Even if you’re pretty sure you’re going to recover, it’s important to communicate that you might get off schedule. Then, if you do get back on track, it just proves how great you are at project management.

After you call attention to the potential delay, keep communicating with stakeholders on a regular basis. This will help to reassure them that the project will be completed successfully, even if it’s a little later than they want.

Keeping an open line of communication with stakeholders prevents a lot of problems. You also prevent further delays if you need stakeholder buy-in to update the project scope or timeline because they’re already in the loop.

2: Stay positive

When delivering bad news, always stay positive. It’s easier to hear bad news from someone with a good attitude.

The same is true when it comes to communicating project delays.

When you notify your stakeholders of a potential setback, stay positive about the direction the project is moving. Your confidence in the future of your project helps them have confidence in you.

Yes, you want to be realistic about whatever situation is presenting a problem.

Being realistic is not the same thing as being negative, though. It’s possible to honestly tell stakeholders what happened with a positive outlook.

3: Prepare a solution

When communicating a delay, avoid the temptation to justify what went wrong. It might sound like you’re making excuses instead of tackling the problem.

While you should provide some context and be prepared to answer questions about what happened, it’s much more important to focus on the solution. Come prepared to talk about how you’re getting back on track.

In most cases, stakeholders don’t really care why a delay happened. They just want the project to get moving again.

Even if you have ideas about how to avoid this in the future, this is not the time to talk about that. You’re already off track and you can’t go back and prevent it. Focus on the solution and explain how you’re fixing the problem now.

4: Avoid finger-pointing

Finger-pointing and blame don’t help anyone. They also make you look bad, even if this really isn’t your fault.

Most of the time, projects get held up by things you can’t control. It doesn’t really matter who’s at fault, just like it doesn’t matter how you would have prevented this problem if you had it to do over again.

You can’t go back, so look forward instead.

There’s really nothing to be gained from playing the blame game. It can only result in stakeholders losing trust in you and your team, or team members developing bad feelings towards you or each other.

If you need to address an issue with a specific team member, do it privately. Your stakeholders don’t need to hear about it.

Bonus: Project delay email sample

Since you need to communicate project delays as quickly as possible, it’s very likely that you’ll need to do it in writing. You can follow up your message by scheduling a call if needed, or the note might be enough on its own.

A good notification email includes four parts:

  • Notice that the project is behind schedule
  • The expected length of the delay
  • A note about why the delay happened and what you’re doing to fix it
  • An updated timeline

From there, you can follow up to schedule a call or answer questions as needed.

To make it easy, here’s a short template that you can use for your project delay notifications. Note that you probably shouldn’t use this sample word-for-word. Make sure to update it to suit your personal situation.

Project delay email template

Dear [Stakeholder/Client Name],

I’m writing to inform you that [Project Name] is behind schedule. I apologize for the delay.

Due to [reason for the project delay], this project has been delayed by [length of the delay].

In order to address these unforeseen circumstances, I have [action taken to move project forward].

The new estimated project completion date is [date].

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about the delay, the new project completion date, or any other details related to the project.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

How to use software for better project communication

Use your task management software to improve project communication, reduce holdups, and communicate the delays will still happen anyway.

Hubstaff Tasks is an agile project management solution designed to help teams stay productive and complete projects on time. It supports Kanban-style workflows, sprints, project templates, task checklists, automated stand-ups, and more.

Hubstaff Tasks

Whatever task management software you use, make sure you leverage its communication capabilities.

Keep all project-related conversations organized by task. Instead of discussing group projects in Slack or over email, use the comments feature to keep those important conversations attached to the related task. It will save you tons of time looking for updates and referencing past discussions.

If you do need to have a real-time conversation in person or over a communication tool, make sure to update your task management software with the relevant takeaways immediately.

Organizing communication by task is also powerful for remote teams that work in different time zones.

You don’t have to wait for someone to answer your email or find time for a meeting when all of the relevant information is already on the task. Work gets done more quickly and the project keeps moving, even when everyone works at different times.

Communicate project delays effectively

Telling your stakeholders that you’re behind is intimidating, but it’s a lot easier when you have a plan. Focus on the solution, and remember that delays happen to everyone.

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