Best Practices in Project Management: How to Know You are in a Difficult Situation
Posted by Gretchen Freeman-Cromar on October 12, 2011
When managing complex projects we are bound to face some difficult situations. I consider a situation difficult if it meets any of the following criteria:
- There is an acute gap between reality and the current plan. (We are supposed to go-live in an hour and the entire database is corrupt, and the IT director is drunk.)
- Confusion exists about what the gap is, what is causing it, whose job it is to resolve it, or possibly whether it even exists. (What iceberg? I don’t see an iceberg.)
- It’s unclear how resources should be applied to resolve the gap. Fear that taking action or doing nothing may make things worse. (Don’t just stand there, do something! Wait, no. Don’t do anything, you might make it worse!)
Typical causes for difficult project situations are listed here:
- Oversight or realization
- You or your team is forced to do something stupid
- Failing schedule or resource shortage
- Quality is low
- Direction change
- Team or personnel issues
- Disagreement and conflict
- Lack of faith
- Threats of mutiny (acute form of lack of faith)
What makes these kinds of situations difficult is not the situation itself, but the context in which it occurs. During go-lives, many kinds of issues have fuzzy beginnings and endpoints. No red warning light will go off on your desk telling you that morale is low or that an oversight has just been made. You have to look for it, and even when you find it-it won’t always be 100% clear what is going on. Taking action, you may only be able to mitigate it and minimize its impact; it might not be entirely solvable. Part of what to do when you’re in a difficult situation is to dedicate time for maintaining chronic and unresolvable problems at a tolerable level. Here are a few tips on how to professionally do that.
Take Responsibility and Do Damage Control
Taking responsibility doesn’t make it your fault: it means that you will deal with the consequences and be accountable for resolving the situation. By lending real responsibility to the problem, you instantly make the problem less dangerous to the project. In a damage control situation, you don’t usually have time to explore options or consider alternatives. There is usually something very important that is very broken, and it won’t be clear how it can possibly be resolved. To readily handle and face these situations, here are some tips:
Call an all-hands meeting.
The longer you wait to address it, the more fear the team will have to face. Don’t hide from big problems.
If people are in disagreement, find the point of agreement.
Bring it back to the last point of agreement: ‘Do we all agree that our goals are A, B, and C, and in that order?’ and work forward into the problems you are having.
What is the most recent known good state for the project?
If the damage you’re controlling is technical, find the last good back-up you can restore.
Can the problem be isolated?
Think of a boat that is currently on fire. Can the fire be contained? Can the most critical parts of the ship be protected against the fire? Think of how you can sequester the problem and prevent it from impacting the most critical parts of your project.
Can resources be applied to help with the damages?
Sometimes you can spend your way out of a problem. Throwing money or resources at things can sometimes work if your aim is good and it’s the right kind of target.
Find the point of unification.
Find the important points of unification and agreement and use those to start any discussion you have. You want to start with momentum.
Recognize personality conflicts and then ignore them.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing someone’s personality traits to distract you from the goal of solving your problem. Find a way to separate those feelings from the task at hand.
Look for mutual interest.
Lay out all the possible ways to resolve a situation, and look for choices that benefit both sides.
No matter what you do, things will go wrong.
If you can stay calm, and break problems down into pieces, you can handle many difficult situations. Taking responsibility will always expedite resolutions, and in extreme situations, go into damage control mode. Do whatever it takes to get the project to a known and stable state.
Read more about project management Theory in Practice Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun.