Project in Trouble: Don’t Panic!

Something about the current debates about English secondary education (age 11 to 16 years)  has reminded me of a project that didn’t go well.

The debate about introducing a new qualification before completing a review of the system ( is beginning to look like someone with power was making a big decision based on opinion and a perceived need to act quickly and not a more objective view – and after a few weeks the situation looks starkly different.

Sometimes, a manager must make a fast decision based on the information available because there is no time left to contemplate. However, often waiting for your team to give more information or think of alternative can mean a better decision. Action is vital when a project hits a problem but panic reactions and instinctive firefighting can lead to more trouble.  Unfortunately, that a problem has been found can build a desire to take decisive action fast.

I was in the meeting when Joe (the project manager) realised that his team had discovered something that was going to put him wildly over schedule and put a huge hole in his project budget. We talked about how he could calmly take this forward and rescue best value from the project for the stakeholders. He had some ideas but realised he needed more information from the team and had to test out some potential solutions.

He had a real sense of urgency about him when I left that meeting: he was telling his team that they must get all the work they had in hand to a sensible point to leave for a few days. The project team would need time to work on what to do about this issue. They agreed a good place to start was a workshop about the facts of the problem before they left that evening.

I knew Joe had a regular lunch meeting booked with the Mark (the senior manager responsible for the project) the next day. That seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the issue, bring some early information and ideas, and ask for support and guidance from Mark. It all sounded like a plan to get to a new plan.

I went on a business trip for a few days. When I got back, I could only wonder at what had happened.

The project team were running in various directions with panic written across their faces, Joe looked downtrodden and Mark appeared to be the new project manager issuing instructions to everyone but there was no sign of a plan.  Everyone was in firefighting mode but without the calm disciplined approach I know trained firefighters have. That didn’t seem to be an improvement.

I had a quiet coffee with the very stressed Rob (PMO consultant assigned to the project) and got the story. Joe had done all the things he and I had discussed. The team had defined the problem sensibly and had some ideas that might work but these were not complete before lunch with Mark.  Once Mark had heard the details of the problem he quickly knew how important it was.

However, just as Joe was about to discuss his ideas and plan, Mark got a phone call from his boss who demanded why he hadn’t taken change of the problem as 24 hours had already passed.  How the boss knew about the problem we never found out but Mark’s expression changed as he was berated and he was heard to say “I am already on it … I’m meeting with Joe now … I am confident we can find a way to satisfy this customer …of course I’ll take charge myself”. Now Joe and Mark are both trapped in a senior manager’s “Just Get On With It” pronouncement from afar.

Mark saw Rob and I return from our meeting and called us into his office. That at least gave the project team some respite. Sometimes, I just say the wrong things: “I see the solution to the issue isn’t progressing well – what does your plan look like?” After Mark described his frustrations for about 10 minutes, Rob started to relax and there was silence. What now? The only thing I could say was, “why don’t we call Joe in and see how far we’ve really progressed and what ideas his team has now?”

By the end of the day, we concluded that

  •  all the activity had made some progress but not as much as we could have done,
  • we had learnt some lessons and gained some valuable insights into the solution,
  • we could see a logical plan to solve the issue by the end of the next day,
  •  Mark was paying for the team dinner that night as they agreed to work late to make up the time he’d lost.

That dinner was considerably more elegant than the pizza the project budget might normally have yielded. The team was as good as their word and produced the solution the next day. They also had some other ideas which improved the project as a whole, made money for the organisation and delighted the customer.

Will the education debate end so happily? I do hope so. When I think of that team, they were all very intelligent and able – partly thanks to their education.


Twitter for project managers (4 of 4)

The first 3 parts were about Twitter, it’s conventions and how to find and share information. This final post in the series, Part 4, suggests how to use Twitter for a project

Please add your ideas and comments if you are a #pmot (project manager on Twitter). What works for you?
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Twitter for project managers (3 of 4)

Parts 1 and 2 were about Twitter and it’s conventions, Part 3 suggests how to find useful information and collaborate on Twitter
Read more of this post

Twitter for project managers (2 of 4)

Part 1 was about Twitter, Part 2 is about the habits and traditions Twitter users have.

Twitter was started by some friends who wanted to tell each other what was happening. As others joined, habits and traditions started.
Read more of this post

Technical team leaders are rarely natural project managers

I overhead a conversation about a technical leader’s lack of leadership. The team leader was being acknowledged as a technical expert but blasted for his lack of management skills.

It was assumed this leader was deliberately making his juniors look incompetent, delegating things they did not know how to do but not teaching or correcting them, and not thanking anyone for their contribution. In short, they assumed he was a bully.

I held an alternative conclusion. He was someone who exercised technical leadership and was put into a position of team leadership. He was trying to juggle his expert status with a lack of time and the early stages of his management career. This guy was exposed and it sounded like he had no support: the expectation was he’d learn to be a manager in his spare time. What spare time?

The failing was not with this technical lead but the managers who put him in this position without training or coaching in planning and coaching staff.

Management and especially project management is a skill set that you must learn. It rarely comes naturally. Technical expertise in the area the project works in can hinder the learning curve because when difficult issues arise a technical leader will try to do the work rather than manage it. That leaves the project without any management at a time when it is most needed.

The best thing I found to develop my career as a project manager was to not be the expert. I suggest managers think carefully about appointing technical leads as project managers. Second them out to a different type of project to learn how to manage projects beside someone who is an expert in that sort of project. Not being able to solve the issues yourself makes you focus on the management of the project, coaching and delegation, and learning to ask the questions that help technical leaders solve difficult problems. Only when you have those skills should you return to run project in your own area of expertise.

Twitter for project managers

Another mini series of blogs on a topic for project managers – enjoy the four parter on Twitter

Social Media has grown. Facebook is the communication method of choice for some groups of people. Foursquare tells you where people often are. Some counties or age groups use it a lot, for others it is only common in some sectors. carries the news from the spot as it happens and commentary from conferences and events in just 140 characters.

To get the best from Twitter you need to build a network of contacts to “follow”. These are people or organisations who give you useful information or who you hold online conversations. There are also tools that will tell you what the world or your part of it are posting about (tweeting) by looking at these trending topics, you may discover others who tweet the sorts of things that interest you.

In your main Twitter account settings, you have a choice to make your account private. That means you can choose if you allow others to follow you and see your posts. I am not convinced of the practical use of these. While Twitter has a pretty good record of defending it’s data, nothing you post onto a public site, even behind a privacy wall, is truly private any longer. I compare it to having a changing room in a big store that has salon doors – there is some protection of your modesty but it is not truly private.

So what make the difference to success?

That is the big question for a project manager: how to turn a delivered project into a success. With a clear understanding of the objective, good planning, team management skills, an eye on quality, effective financial and risk management a manager can bring a project in on time.

Even then, a few things will not be perfect. Think of the projects you spend years planning and working towards: your graduation, wedding, winning a major sporting event or building a new company headquarters. Do they happen without a glitch? Something will go wrong at some point.

Two of my friends just got married. They have been planning this for about two years. One has had to move countries to do it. They had a plan of all the things they needed to do and worked through it. Everyone wants a perfect wedding and they did all they could to make that happen. They had all the normal stresses that putting on such an event means. They made sure they had a team around them to help with the practical things that needed to be done and that these people understood the flow of the day. It was the best day of their lives and at the end, they were exhausted but ecstatic.

There were glitches: shoes that looked great for the ceremony were not good for dancing, luggage in the wrong place, running ahead of schedule and arriving at the reception a little before the venue was really ready. None of this mattered in the end because the team understood what the outcome of each part would be and could do what was needed to make that happen. Things were fetched from the hotel, some last minute shopping got missing essentials, transport was rearranged and bar staff were alerted before guests got to the venue.

That autonomy to fix the problems meant the team (without fuss) made the adjustments needed to keep the day on track. That team were fully engaged in the efforts to meet the day’s objective. They served that objective not through checklists but by being considerate of the stakeholders. The stakeholder’s opinion is the final deterimination of success and they had a great time.

A project manager does not complete the project alone. To be a truely successful project, the team has to be part of that success. Success is fun and it is habit forming. Most importantly, success is achieved by being thoughtful and having an awareness of what is important and what can be changed to make it so.

The project manager as coach

Yesterday, I attended a really useful workshop in London about coaching and project management.  It was run by the Association for Project Management ( People special interest group. Read more of this post

What are we trying to achieve?

Setting the objective for a programme or project is something that some managers and organisations give too little analysis. The instinct is to say “make me widget X” or “make this new organisation structure happen”.  That simply defines the solution that seems obvious at the time. For some projects that is enough but for many that is like saying “go to Plymouth” without say why or what you need to be ready to do when you get there.

For a project team to be successful, it helps to know what the end state needs to be and why you need that end. Read more of this post

ISO 9000 Projects – not just paperwork!

Recent events have made some organisations consider ISO9000 again as a badge to reassure their customers that they have a consistent way of doing business. It is more than a simple visit from an auditor but needs a commitment from everyone in the organisation to work in a consistent way. Read more of this post