Dealing with the Crises in Project Management

In the IT world, it seems that a project wouldn’t be a project without a crisis along the way. A crisis is a crucial time in which a decisive change is impending, especially one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome, according to Webster.   As a project manager, the important thing is to manage the crisis to a successful resolution.

The first thing to recognize is what the crisis really is.  There are three major crises that can occur during a project. They are:

  1. Someone realizes that the project is going to be significantly over the time estimate, over budget, or is not going to meet the required functionality (this includes the quagmire of the unsolvable bug);
  2. The product being built is not the product the users want or need;
  3. Political infighting between stakeholders (members of the user community, management, or the project staff) is causing turmoil.

These three causes are frequently inter-related.

A crisis can be managed in several ways.  The first, and most dangerous, is the ostrich method.  This involves taking the easy route, ignore the impending crisis, and hope it goes away. It almost never works,  and burying your head in the sand can result in a full-blown disaster project.

It’s better to recognize the symptoms of a crisis and admit that they exist.  Once acknowledged, a crisis can be discussed openly and alternative solutions can be considered.  To get through the crisis, and avoid ‘highly undesirable outcomes’ the project manager needs to:

  • Ensure that stakeholders are informed about the magnitude of the issues and know that the situation is being managed;
  • Ensure that the right people are working on resolving the crisis
  • Communicate that the situation is serious but not the end of the world. Be confident that the problems can be resolved. 

Deliver the bad news early. This provides the opportunity to influence the initial opinions and the course of action.  While the best approach to solving a problem depends on the specific situation, the following tips will help get through the crisis.

Over communicate. The project sponsor and key stakeholders should be updated daily.  Provide a progress statement, even if it’s only to state the 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.  This helps by making sure that everyone is focused on the problems, and working on the most important aspects of the problem.

Escalate the problem.  Most project managers, and project team members, hold on to a problem too long, thinking it makes them look bad to ask for help. If someone can solve the problem from outside the team, ask for him or her.  If it’s a bug, call the vendor.  If the sponsor says there’s no money left, ask to go the steering committee or the sponsor’s boss and explain why more money is a good investment.

Within the team, frequently the reverse problem happens.  Everyone works on the problem, rather than the right team members.  If every one is needed, fine.  But if there are team members who can be more effective working on other activities, keep them working on those areas.

Focus on the issue.  Make sure the other parts of the project continue, but the team should know the issue resolution is the project manager’s – and the teams – number one priority. 

Avoid the 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.  With that schedule, develop near term milestones that can definitely be met to give a sense of ‘being back on track’.

If the wrong product is being built or implemented, identify the gaps and work with the project sponsors on how to get from here to there. If the crisis is political, it can help to be frank.  Ask the people not supporting the project for support, and get their commitments in writing. 

There are a few common threads running through these tips. Over communicate.  Focus on solving the problems.  And ask for help early and often.

Finally – don’t panic.  Panicking will cause the team to lose focus resulting in poor communications, and loss of confidence.  Stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of adversity and the crisis will be averted.

Originally published September 1998
Graham Boundy, Project X Ltd. and Mark Dymond, IBM

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