First aid for projects

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Introduction

Everyone has worked on a project at one time or another that has been 'challenged'. These are the projects that keep us working well beyond sunset or that keep us up at night. The best case scenario is that a few adjustments to the project plan or scope will bring it back on track. The worst case scenario is that the project is in full blown crisis: time and costs are spiralling out of control and it appears unlikely that the project will be able to meet its business objective. Most challenged projects lie somewhere in between these two bookends.

The immediate and natural reaction to crisis is to panic. Once this feeling has subsided, though, you still need to address the actual problem. You need to offer some first aid to the project. This article looks briefly at projects in crisis and provides you with some key first aid steps to follow when trying to resuscitate them.

Keep communicating

Almost every article about project management stresses the importance of communication. If it is important to communicate well and openly during regular project activities, it is even more important to do so in problem situations. Unfortunately, good communication is often the first activity to be set aside in project crises because the team wants to focus on “getting the real work done.” This usually results in a panic-stricken project team that runs in all directions at once. Effective communication during this time helps bring the team together and gets everyone marching in the same direction, thus making them better able to solve problems.

Create a focused problem-solving team

I rarely cook, but have often heard “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Although I am not sure if this applies to cooking, I do know that it does apply to projects in crisis. The tendency when a problem arises is to bring everyone into the same room, have them drop all of their work, and get them to start working immediately on solving the problem. Although a dramatic approach to problem solving, it can be counter-productive and elicits images of the Keystone Cops.

A focused group of people working on the problem is usually a more efficient way to address it. They should have skills or knowledge directly related to solving the problem, and be asked to focus on problem solving as their highest priority. Their other duties should be transferred to others on the project team if possible. The focused team is usually better able to identify the problem, and better equipped to develop a comprehensive plan to address it.

Address the critical issues first

Working on a problem project can be quite overwhelming. Projects in crisis often have a vast array of issues associated with them. There can be so many things to fix that one wonders where to start. These issues may range from very large ones, such as deep budget cuts, to smaller issues, such as scope creep. Working your way through these problems can be daunting, even for the most experienced project manager.

A common tendency is to start addressing the simple issues because they are easily fixed. Resist this tendency and ask yourself which problems most threaten the project. Start focusing on these. Resolving these problems will significantly impact the project’s health and will make the rest of these issues much more manageable. After you have knocked off a couple of the big ones, it will be far easier to see your way through the rest.

Change it up

I have discussed in other articles the importance of focusing on the business objective of the project. The business objective is why you are doing the project, while the project itself is how you hope to achieve that objective. For example, the business objective may be to better track communication with donors and stakeholders. The project will deliver a relationship management database to help achieve that objective. You must always keep in mind that it is not, in most circumstances, critical exactly how you achieve the business objective, so long as you actually do achieve the business objective. In other words, the “project” is flexible, and indeed it often needs to change to better serve the business objective.

If the project is in crisis, ask yourself whether there is another, simpler way to achieve the business objective. You will better serve the organization if you are open to changing the project plans and to re-orienting them in a new direction. If building the relationship management database in the example above is creating significant problems for the organization, buying a simple, off-the-shelf application or using a spreadsheet may be more beneficial. Don’t be afraid to change it up if you feel that another approach is better.

Summary

This article provides you with some key considerations when trying to breathe life into a suffering project. The unfortunate reality is that you will need to head these off at some point in your project management career. When a project enters full-blown crisis mode, it is easy to become overwhelmed. If you do become overwhelmed, however, just remember to follow these few simple bits of advice:

  1. Communicate. If everyone is on the same page, solving project issues becomes a far easier task.
  2. Solve problems using small groups of people who have skills directly related to the problem and who are assigned the specific task of devising a solution.
  3. Do not procrastinate on the big issues. Solve the big issues first, and then worry about the smaller ones.
  4. Be flexible with your project plan. Always remember your business objective and adjust your project as necessary.

If you follow these four pieces of advice, your project’s crisis will become far more manageable and you should be able to get it back on track.

Blair Witzel (blair@mcdoane.com) is a member of the Project Management Institute and a consultant with McDonnell Doane + Associates, an information management and technology firm focusing on the not-for-profit and public sectors. His work centres on managing multi-project portfolios and working with organizations to develop project management methodologies to more effectively deliver projects.

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