Now that was a Surprise

When a surprise or bad news hits your desk as a project manager, how do you deal with it? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” is the old saying but the smart leader only acts when action is needed.

I spend a lot of time working in project teams creating a sense of urgency and ownership but if things start going really badly, that is when I need to make sure there is controlled reflection – avoiding panic in a crisis is vital. Even with the best plans and risk management in place, the “unknown unknowns” or low probability high impact risks occasionally happen.

I admit my first reaction is sometimes to “get going” but with years of practice, I have come to recognise this as the need to “do something!”.  Even if that is only to express my frustration or ask for more information. I’m told I tend to talk faster in these moments – a pointer to it being a reaction and not a response (everyone has their own clue; get to know your own warning signs.).

I rarely send emails at this point – except quick notes like “things aren’t going to plan with X. We may have an issue. I’m investigating. Can we schedule a conference call at 3pm for a 15 minute update? There is an appointment in your diary.” instead of voicemail if that senior stakeholder prefers email.  My senior stakeholders need to know the project may need their action or experience.

It is worth remembering that senior stakeholders may also have the urge to “do something” or to argue that something be done now. What must be done is an analysis of the next best steps and a plan to make those things happen.

Soon experience takes over and then I really start to act. The first action is to get the team together and make everyone take a slow deep breath. Rushing to conclusions now will not help. So get their brains working with some extra oxygen and team work.

Look at the real situation: not where the first reports suggest. It feels like a disaster in the first few minutes but that is rarely the case. In the project there will be somethings that are a success: what is salvageable and must we need to fix? This context makes the problem look smaller and will give clues about how define what you need to do.

Look closely at what happened. Define the problem in a way that shows the causes and allows a solution (or at least things we can do) to emerge.  Think about the resource available and what do they need to make that solution happen? Often you’ll have all you need if you look past the assumptions made about the team when the project started – they have other talents too. Is there anything in the risk management contingency planning that will help? Who do we need to engage and motivate? What barriers need removing so we can make progress?

Pause and ask: is it worth doing? Or should we salvage what we can, close the project and regroup for the next opportunity?

Now for action. What else do we need to get done at the same time to keep the project on track? What can be left for another time? How do we define these priorities? What impacts will these decisions have and who should we talk with? Make a plan for what, who, how and how to communicate.

With the plans for work, resources and communications for the actions you need to take, decide what adds most value or prevents most loss. Plan how you will work on that plan in small chunks of time that reflects the urgency and the size of the tasks. Get agreement for this plan from the senior stakeholders and act together with determination.

Now do what can be achieved hour by hour,  day by day. It won’t always be a smooth ride. At the end of each chunk of time, check your progress and act to adjust your plan for the next chunk of time. Keep the senior stakeholders updated and everyone who is affected by the changes informed.

Hopefully,  the surprise will have opened opportunities for the team to have an unexpected success.  When they have that success, celebrate it!

Finally, make sure that you hold a retrospective review and learn about the good things the surprise made you do and things that could be done better in the future.


About 3triangles
Helping organisations make change happen in 3 key areas: strategic change, deliver tactical impacts, efficient and effective processes. All blog content (c) 2009 - 2012 Carol Long and Three Triangles Performance Ltd

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