Project Management “Impossibilities” – Running the Project Management Marathon

December 8, 2020 2:12 pm || Josh Hoops || Categorized in:

Running a race is easy, right? You get up early on a Saturday morning, lace up your sneakers, get in line and go. You eventually get to the end and cross the finish line. Easy day.

Now, let’s be realistic. Every runner, cyclist, swimmer, or other flavor of endurance athlete spends a significant period of time before “game day” preparing. Diet, training, equipment, and planning are all necessary to be a successful athlete. The same holds true for effective Project Management. Understanding limitations, challenges, resourcing, scope, and scheduling are all critical elements in preparing to execute a project. As a Project Manager, it is essential to prepare the team for success. Even with extensive and exhaustive planning, problems are unavoidable and should be expected. But what if the project encounters problems of such magnitude that the project “goes off the rails”? What if all that planning didn’t account for potential problems or conflicts that have a major impact and now the project is in trouble because it’s over budget, behind schedule, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out? Often, this puts the Project Manager in what is perceived as an “impossible” situation.

Typically, when major project issues are encountered, the viewpoint from stakeholders is “You should have been better prepared” (never a situation any PM wants to find themselves in). However, in reality, sometimes things just go wrong, and now the team needs to pick up the pieces and get the project back on track. One of the most difficult challenges to deal with in this situation is bringing the team together and marching to the same drum. In an ideal world, every team member understands their role and the project objectives and is working to achieve the ultimate outcome – success. Anyone who has managed any substantial project quickly learns that operating in the ideal world is almost never the case. From a holistic standpoint, the project is executed as planned and all the issues are dealt with in accordance with pre-determined risk mitigation strategies and actions. However, in complex projects involving a multitude of organizations, even the best laid plans never survive first contact with the enemy.

Communicate, communicate, communicate… and when you think you are done communicating, start over!

Communication is probably one of the most fundamental, and important, tools in a Project Manager’s toolbox. The most successful PMs really have a knack for effectively communicating throughout all levels of a project team, including senior stakeholders and sponsors. Having the capability to understand a problem, why it exists, and the available solutions are key components of effective communication in a project. The more successful PMs have an innate ability to “speak” different languages. Talking Engineering to Engineers, Strategy to Executives, and Contracts with Procurement are just a few examples. More important is having the ability to translate the different “languages” across all of those stakeholders. When a problem manifests from a very technical issue, for example, it’s vital for a PM to be able to translate that problem to the stakeholders outside of the technical sphere in a manner that is relatable to each individual. To enable this, the PM should be asking probing questions for clarity and then developing “what-if” scenarios to deal with the problem.

Of course, effective communication is not the end all be all to getting a rogue project back on track. It’s a critical element, yes. However, the PM should spend a significant level of effort in understanding how and when the issue(s) evolved. There are a multitude of methods and tools available for which to achieve this understanding (e.g. FMEA, RCA, etc). However, more important is the resultant action a PM will take based on the results. More often than not, PMs spend a lot of time gathering and analyzing the data, only to say, “Yup, just as I thought, we are over budget and behind schedule”. So now what? The PM needs to communicate these findings, and most importantly, recommended solutions, to all stakeholders. Remaining factual and unemotional is paramount in this endeavor; but remain passionate about the solutions!

Hope is NOT a plan.

One of the most difficult aspects of getting a project back on track is just acknowledging that there is a problem. Hoping that things will just work themselves out will most likely lead to failure. Once a problem is identified, early and decisive action is often the most effective strategy for correcting the issue. Ignoring the problem will most likely make it worse. Conflict is one of the most difficult things to deal, even for the most experienced PMs. But not addressing the problem entirely will most certainly lead to additional conflict. When conflict festers amongst a project team, finger pointing, and the blame game will result in negative productivity and the situation continues to spiral in to the depths of the project abyss. PMs should consistently be honing their conflict resolution skills. Listen, and comprehend, the problem from different perspectives. Even people who work closely together on a certain activity may have differing opinions on the current state of their activity. The magnification of that difference is exponential when it comes to senior stakeholders across multiple activities or projects.

Use the experts. A good PM knows their weaknesses. A great PM will empower and enable those subject matter experts around them to fill the gaps in those weaknesses. When issues arise, seek out the counsel and advice of those that have the knowledge and experience to fix the problems. Most importantly, act upon their recommendations with confidence. But what if the cause of the problem in the first place came from the experts that have been involved from the beginning? Estimating activity durations, resources, and other crucial elements should involve the experience of the experts from the very beginning. However, even the most experienced SME’s will have some variance of accuracy in their estimation. When these errors present a significant impact on the project, the PM needs to evaluate options to determine if additional expertise is necessary. It’s never an easy decision to replace an experienced expert mid-project. However, if it’s necessary to get the project back on track, it’s unavoidable and the PM should not hesitate to do so. This decision is not to be taken lightly and the PM should always weigh the potential consequences against the future gains.

Clarity is essential.

Chances are, when more than one person is involved with a project, each person will have a differing viewpoint or opinion on any given topic. This is human nature. So how does the PM equalize the perceptions? First and foremost is communication (see above!) Constant, consistent, and accurate messaging is crucial to gain and achieve clarity nirvana. Let’s do a test. For any given project, ask all of the stakeholders and sponsors a simple question: Describe the project objectives and business benefits. If the same answer is received from each of those individuals, the project communication is probably pretty decent. However, if each of them has a different “perspective”, which is most likely the case if the project is “off the rails”, then the PM has some work to do in this area. Project Charters, Project Plans (development and execution) are all a good start. But it’s not unusual for these documents to be shelved a week or two after implementation has begun. As a common practice, the PM should review project objectives and crucial project information (e.g. RACI charts, Risks, etc) at the start of project review meetings and in periodic reporting (e.g. monthly progress reports).

Formal processes are fundamental.

The PM should not only implement formal processes but enforce them rigorously. Suffering projects often times are the result of commitments not being met as agreed upon during the planning stage. When putting a project back on track, the PM should be making a strong point of process enforcement. Deadlines, quality of deliverables, and reporting are all processes that may suffer when projects are stressed. The most important aspect of process is simplicity. Complex and confusing processes imposed just for the sake of having a process will most assuredly result in short cuts being taken across all lines of the project – ultimately causing just the opposite of what he process intended in the first place. Of course, not all processes can be boiled down to simplicity, but using experts to lean out processes and get rid of burdensome, time consuming activities will result in improved efficiency and earned value (think productivity!).

Finish the race!

Most importantly, never give up. Even if you have to crawl to the finish line, the PM should continue to drive the project to conclusion. If you have ever heard the term “bad news doesn’t get better with age”, it’s absolutely true from a PM perspective. Communicate early and often with project stakeholders and sponsors when problems arise. Do not hope for a good outcome. Go back to the plan and re-evaluate with the experts. Analyze the problems from a factual and data driven perspective and keep moving forward with simple, lean, and clear processes. All the planning in the world means nothing if the PM (and the project team!) does not continually evaluate the plan, reassess the outcome and change directions when necessary.

About the Author:

Josh Hoops, Global Director – Program & Project Management, CAI

Josh Hoops is leading teams to achieve excellence in the delivery of mission-critical facilities around the globe. As an expert in operations management and an inspirational leader, his experience across multiple industries has proven success in improving a wide array of fundamental and complex aspects of organizational efficiency and effectiveness.