As project mangers we typically like to be in control. However, the reality of the situation is we certainly can not control everything. We can plan to our hearts content – but rarely does a project get executed and delivered exactly as we had planned. In this article we will explore how to handle situations that surface that are completely out of our control. Items we never dreamed to put into our Risk Management plan – or if we did - they were low priority risks and we didn’t document a risk mitigation approach. So how should we handle situations when the carpet has suddenly been pulled from underneath you and your project team members? Let’s explore four techniques to address this not-so-fun situation.
Let’s say your project is moving along just fine – not perfect – but it is well within the PMO guidelines for schedule, cost, and risk tolerances. You and your team are preparing for the next major milestone and - suddenly – the senior management team decides to put your project on “hold” because “there’s something else happening” at the executive level. You can’t bring on additional resources as planned, but you can proceed in a limited fashion with existing resources. This means you can’t work on all components of the end product because you need unique labor skilled resources to complete the product. So – how should the svelte project manager handle this situation?
1) Let’s first deal with your project team members
Ensure you communicate to your team immediately what is going on. You want them to get the news from you – not through the grapevine. They will have LOTS of questions for which you likely will not have a lot of answers. For instance – why can’t we bring on the resources as planned? When can we bring the resources on board? Does our end date get extended out? The team will likely be very frustrated with senior management actions and morale can drop significantly. If the team had been working very hard to achieve a milestone – and then management “changes the rules” and suddenly say that specific milestone is on-hold – it will deflate the team.
In this scenario – I tell the team “as much as I can” because I’ve been told the full story should not be shared with project team members until final decisions have been made at the senior management level. Be very careful in how you communicate the senior management actions to the project team. You don’t want to “throw darts” at the senior management team – instead you want to explain what is going on, why, and what the next known steps are. And then ask team members what their questions are, recommendations and ideas they have if appropriate, concerns they have, and if there’s anything else they need from you. Ensure they understand this is not a reflection of the team’s performance and thank them for working as hard as they did to achieve task completions on time with a high level of quality. They need to understand you (and senior management) do appreciate the work they have done and due to other strategic events – your project is being impacted by something out of their control.
At this point try to listen very carefully to team member reactions. Some will fall in the “who cares ‘category and will just go with the flow. Others will be extremely frustrated and won’t be focused on work activities for the near term weeks until they get a chance to “process” the situation and get re-grounded again. You’ll need to work carefully with team members that are frustrated (likely one-on-one) to talk specifically about their concerns and their emotions to determine how to best help them overcome the situation.
2) Get the team back on track emotionally
To address this issue you have to start with YOURSELF first. You need to mentally get back in the game and focus on what you CAN do as opposed what you’re not being allowed to do or what is out of your control. It’s ok to allow yourself some “detox” time – but ultimately you’ll need to move on – so your team can do the same. Once you do this – then you can get your team back on track as well.
Create a revised WBS if needed, re-do your risks, and even create revised milestone dates. You need to re-level set the plan which will enable you to re-level set your expectations too. Once you have new realistic goals to achieve – you can give the team something to focus on. Ensure you reflect on the great accomplishments the team has achieved – and be ready to move forward with the revised plan and approach.
3) Ultimately - you’ll need to let go of things you can’t control or change
This is one of those times where “letting go” is definitely in your best interest. Once you have clearly communicated to senior management the negative impact their actions are having on your project (explain the impact in terms of scope, schedule, costs and/or risks) along with your recommendations – all you can do at that point is march toward the revised plan that has been created. If you continue to hold on to the past – it will simply frustrate you – and bring the team down as well.
Even if you don’t like the revised approach to the project you’ll need to support it “publicly” which can be very difficult to do – but is essential for your project’s success. As a project manager, there are indeed some things out of our control and once we realize and accept this we can then proceed with what IS in our control which is our mindset!! Write down (for your own purposes) what is out of your control for a given project to ensure you clearly understand the things you can’t change and/or control. If you begin to get stressed about something on your “not in my control list” then let it go immediately, delegate it to someone who has the authority to address it and move on!
4) Communicate – Communicate – Communicate
When in doubt – communicate to your team what is going on and always be honest. Remember as the project manager you’re likely getting information on a daily basis – sometimes minute by minute during times like this – but your team meeting may be weekly. So in the interim – send out email updates to the team as “news breaks” so they hear it from you first – always asking them to call you if they have specific questions or concerns. Call team members one-on-one more often to touch base with them and see how they are doing. If a team member asks you a question that you can not answer without divulging confidential information senior management has shared with you – let the team member know you can’t answer their specific question right now – but when you can - you will answer their question at that time. If they need an answer because something is impacting their job – it’s your responsibility to provide them an answer (with management approval) or provide them an alternative solution to the given situation so they can move forward.
If necessary, schedule a brief 15-minute team meeting to update everyone mid-week with current project updates (especially if you want to verbally explain what is going on vs. risk communications via email which could cause some misunderstandings).
Projects rarely go as planned – that we are used to. But when things happen that are ‘bigger than us’ and beyond our control we need to take a different approach to handle the situation effectively. Items that fall into this category include: sponsorship changes initiated by senior management, company reorganization, company merger/buyouts, outsourcing, department level funding cuts, and change in corporation strategic objectives.
Remember the overall steps include:
Working with your team members in a timely fashion and frequently to communicate the situation at hand
Get yourself back on track – and then the project team with a revised project approach and direction
Let go of things beyond your control – focus on what you CAN control
Communicate changes as they surface to ensure everyone continues to be appropriately informed
Following these steps will provide you the capabilities to move you and your team forward – even in very difficult times.