Project Fundamentals in Times of Crisis

How can you keep your project on track when everything that surrounds it is going up in flames?

Ask anyone who has made a career in project delivery about their experiences and guaranteed there will be a war story or two about walking into a significant project that is beginning to fail: no matter where you look, things appear to be falling apart.

Rescuing a project from what looks like certain failure and getting it back on track is not for the faint hearted, but it should start with project fundamentals, or PM101’s as they are generally called. Like so many things, when in times of trouble, going back to basics and focusing on what’s important is critical.

Below are four steps that should be considered when attempting to rescue your project from what may seem to be certain failure and get it back on track to success:

Step One – Do We Know What Success Looks Like?

The initial ‘fight or flight’ response in all of us will often prompt us to dive into the detail, such as the schedule, to see where we can make up time. Often this means looking at external dependencies that can potentially be delayed to help the project team re-establish the baseline and bring the project back to green. While this might be a typical starting point, it is not the most constructive response from a project manager.

The more experienced practitioner will sit back and assess the situation: is there still a clear definition for the success of the project? Often projects that are under duress have lost their way because the sight of the common goal has been lost.

Each and every member of the governance and project team must be able to recite verbatim what ‘success’ looks like for the project. Without the ability to validate that everyone is on the same page and able to pull in the same direction, the project team will simply struggle to get through the storm. The experienced practitioner will look for ways to bring everyone back to the table and refocus on what the deliverables need to be to achieve success.

Step Two – Re-validate that the Scope Still Delivers on the Promise

Once the focus on success is clear and agreed, the next step is to revalidate the scope of the project. The project manager needs to be able to answer the question: Are we doing everything necessary to deliver on the success?

As a PM explores the question, it may become clear that there are work packages that deliver on ‘nice-to-have’ requirements that, in the wash-up, do not add any material value to the success of the project. That is not to say they should be ignored, but the opportunity may exist to deliver them incrementally in a business-as-usual mode rather than via the project.

Removing such deliverables from the critical path enables the project team’s energies to be focused on delivering only the most crucial activities within scope.

Step Three – Rely on Your Governance; Ignore the Noise

Ignoring the noise and focusing on governance is critical and easy to say, but often difficult to achieve. If the PM and the team are under sustained pressure, then there will be a lot of noise being generated around the project, often from mid-tier management, related projects and field staff.

PMs need all their energy to stay focused on the task at hand. So who should be listened to and why?

The answer to that question is simple but difficult. Focus should be on governance and project process: do not waste time or unnecessary energy on responding, defending or even attacking noise that, frankly, does not contribute to the project’s success.

A mature PM will check in with his Steering Committee and Sponsor regularly; will focus the discussion on success and the key enablers of success; and call them to account to support the project. If they don’t provide the support needed, then the question has to be asked: Does the business really want to do this project? A PM can’t do it for them in isolation!

Step Four – Lead, Lead, Lead and … Lead

Leaders are born in times of crisis. The team is looking for direction, a safe place and a common goal and it’s vital to not lose sight of the fact that the team is impacted by the noise and often without the full situational context.

Project leaders need to communicate well and often, while inspiring, challenging and encouraging the team.

Be cognisant of the emotional challenges and frailties that will no doubt exist – this is where a project leader’s soft skills are critical. Should the team be a blend of resources from multiple segments of the business, a successful project leader will:

  • Take a single team approach to achieving the success stated in Step 1
  • Maintain an openness and no-blame culture
  • Adopt the premise that everyone wants to succeed and that we have a shared definition of what success should look like

This approach will encourage team members to speak up and contribute because they feel it will add to the success of the project. It will also help the team to ‘listen’ and reframe their responses into the overall context of the project. People generally understand that what may be in the best interest of one may not always be for the greater good when context is added to the explanation.

Go Back to Guiding Principles

Of course there are many permutations to the above steps, however it’s the guiding principles that you should consider that in times of crisis we can fall back on the fundamentals to get us through. However if the fundamentals are flawed, you will increase the risk of your project delivering a successful outcome.

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