Managing Projects in Crisis

Whether it’s a snag in the schedule, a budgeting oversight or an unforeseen emergency, crises in projects are a fact of life. But there is a way out.

Sometimes it seems inevitable that a project must go through a period of crisis. In fact, sometimes it feels like a project is simply a series of crises with a schedule. Webster’s Dictionary defines a crisis as an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome.1 A crisis is a problem that is not being managed.  A managed crisis is an oxymoron–if it’s being managed properly, it’s not a crisis, it’s merely a bump or hurdle in the project.

The first thing you need to realize is what the crisis really is. There are three major crises that can happen during a project. Either:

  • you (or someone else) realizes that you are going to be significantly over the time estimate, over budget, or are not going to be able to provide the required functionality (this includes the quagmire of the ‘unsolvable’ problem or bug); or
  • the product you are building is not the product the users want or need; or
  • political infighting between stakeholders (members of the user community, management, or the project staff) is causing turmoil.

As the project manager, you are often the first to know that the crisis is upon you. This is because you have the best overall view of the project and understand it the best. You need to know who knows that the problem exists. If you are the only person who knows, then you can take the easy route, ignore the impending crisis, and hope it goes away. This is the "ostrich head in the sand" method. It almost never works, and usually results in a full-blown crisis occurring exactly on schedule.

Management strategies

To get through a crisis, and avoid highly undesirable outcomes you need to:

  • inform  your stakeholders – the project team, user community and executive – so they know that you are managing the situation;
  • ensure that the right people are working on resolving the crisis; and
  • show people that you view the situation as serious, but not the end of the world. In other words, you need to demonstrate that you’re confident that the problem can be solved.

To manage a project in crisis effectively, you should also:

  • Deliver the bad news early. It’s better to be the bearer of bad news yourself than having stakeholders find out from a third party that there is a crisis.  When you deliver the bad news you have the opportunity to influence the initial opinions of stakeholders by describing potential solutions and alternatives. It’s important to identify more than one alternative to resolving the issue.  This will give decision makers more room to maneuver when forced to make critical decisions.  Having several alternative solutions also illustrates to the stakeholders that the situation can be managed, that you are managing it, and this will soften the impact of the bad news could have if no solutions were proposed.
  • Decide on the best approach to delivering the bad news based on the people you are dealing with. Do they need to be warmed up to the situation like someone getting into cold water, or is it better if they hear the bad news directly? An example of this would be the teenager who has had a car accident – she might start the conversation with the statement that there was a little problem, then work up to the fact that no one was hurt before mentioning the body work required on the vehicle. 

Do some people need to know before others or can you bring them together all at once? Will your audience respond better to an electronic mail, phone call, or an in-person discussion?  Try to work from the most effected or senior individual to the least effected.  If you choose to use e-mail or voicemail, be sure the message is clear and concise.  I try to make sure that the key elements of the message – the issue, the impact, and the approach to resolution — are within the first two sentences.

  • Over communicate. Provide the project sponsor and key stakeholders with daily updates. Let them know that you are making progress, even if it’s only in discarding options that didn’t work out. Meet with the people working on the problem daily. It can help immensely to have a brief (15 minutes maximum) meeting each morning, to review how to tackle the crisis today. In fact, if the crisis is big enough, meet twice daily. Frequent meetings will help ensure that everyone is coordinated (they know what you need them to do) and will reassure you that they are working on the most important aspects of the problem.  On the other hand, don’t send unnecessary detail to people who only need to know the high level status.
  • Escalate the problem. Most project managers, and project team members, hold on to a problem too long, thinking it will "make them look bad" (OR "reflect poorly in them") to ask for help. If someone can solve the problem from outside the team ask for his or her help. If it’s caused by problems in purchased products, call the vendor. If the sponsor says there’s no money left, ask for a meeting with the steering committee or the sponsor’s boss to explain why more money is a good investment.

Within the team, frequently the reverse problem happens. You get everyone working on the problem, rather than the right team members. If everyone is needed, fine. But if there are team members who can be better used working on other activities, keep them working on those areas.

  • Focus yourself on the issue. Make sure the unaffected parts of the project keep moving forward, but let your team know that resolving the crisis is your number one priority. Avoid the "just one week, one more week, one more week…" rescheduling trap.   It’s better to say that the schedule will be republished as soon as the crisis is over. Of course, if the crisis is that the schedule is already slipping, commit to developing a new schedule by a certain date. Within the new schedule, develop near term milestones that you know can be met. Publicize them and when you meet the new schedule publicize the fact that you have met it.

If the crisis is political, it can help to be frank. A political problem is one where different people or groups have different agendas or goals. If the goals conflict with your project, you have a political problem.  If you can address the other groups concerns or outline clear and direct benefits to them when the project succeeds they may be persuaded to lend their support.  This course of action is more effective than attaining approval to proceed with your plans from more senior management and having your solution imposed upon all parties from above.

Ask the people who are not supporting the project for support, and get their commitments in writing. Provide more information about the project and the value to the organization – including the value to those who are currently roadblocks.  Often an individual’s opposition to a course of action is generated by a feeling of not being considered or involved in the decision or from a lack of knowledge about how decisions were made.   Instead of asking for generic support or help, ask for specific, measurable contributions.  ‘Fred isn’t supporting us’ can be difficult to resolve.  ‘Fred needs to provide three days of a Quality Assurance Engineer, and despite these requests, we still don’t have it’ is something specific that can be escalated, and dealt with or alternatives found. 

There are a few common threads running through these tips. Over communicate, focus yourself on the issue, and ask for help. Put these steps into practice, and you’ll be well on your way to making the crisis go away.

1. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.  1981 G. & C. Merriam Co.

Originally published by Graham Boundy, Consultant, Project X Ltd, Mark Dymond, Consultant, IBM

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