My totally incomplete but hopefully useful guide to disasters in project management

In your role as project manager, you’ll be dealing with all manner of projects, some small, some enormous, some simple, some complex. All have specific demands and challenges that will test your skills and help to shape you into a real project management professional. But even the best-planned projects can run into disasters. What makes a good project manager is not the fact that you’ve never had a project go wrong (because if you haven’t, trust me that one day your record will be smashed) but how you handle disasters when they happen. Of course, in an ideal world we would avoid disasters altogether, so in each of the potential problems listed below, I’ve included a section on helping you avoid them.

Disaster 1: You Didn’t Understand the Risks … and Now You’re Caught

Every project manager knows that appropriate risk assessment is an important part of the preparation process for any project. Qualitative and quantitative data will help you understand what could potentially go wrong so you can put a plan in place to prevent these things from happening. This becomes infinitely more important the larger and more complex a project is, for the larger the scale the more opportunities for disaster. But when you have a client on a tight schedule and a project team ready to go, it can be hard to take a step back and look at what might go wrong. You don’t want to drag down the schedule before the project has even begun, or be seen by the client as a pencil-pusher who wants to bog the project down in paperwork. So, you took a shortcut. You gave risk assessment a cursory glance, but then dug into the meat of the tasks. And look what happened? Something went wrong. What do you do?
What to do when disaster strikes: DON’T PANIC. And definitely don’t go back and try to cover your tracks. You have past the point where risk assessment will be useful. You need to move into damage cleanup mode. Sit down with your team and come up with a plan – don’t dwell on passing blame or what should have been done, just come up with a series of steps to mitigate disaster. Then, when you’re done saving your ass, go back to the “How to Avoid” step below, and do that so that this never, ever happens again.

How to Avoid:

  • Make risk assessment a vital component of pre-project planning, a component that absolutely cannot be skipped at any cost. Add it as a task in your project management software so that it is always on the agenda to perform.
  • Review your current risk assessment structure. Why is it being skipped over or shortcutted? If this is happening, it might be because your current system for assessing risks is too complex. Look at other methodologies and frameworks and ask if there’s a better way.
  • Appoint someone responsible in the team to perform risk assessment. Delegating this task will enable someone in your team to take ownership for it, and will enable you to have someone look at your methodologies with fresh eyes.

Disaster 2: The Project Is DONE, Hooray! But it’s done to a low-quality and the client is pissed. Boo!

You’ve signed everything off and handed over the project to the client. You’re bang on deadline and are feeling pretty smug. But then the client gets back to you with a startling revelation – the work isn’t up to scratch. You may have finished on time, but there’s more work to be done to get the project up to the level of quality the client expects.
What to do when disaster strikes: again DON’T PANIC. Instead, sit down the the client and all relevant stakeholders. Don’t be confrontational, but aim to dig out a set of specifics on exactly what they aren’t happy with. Once you have a document of issues, you can start working on solutions. Go away with your team and brainstorm solutions to each individual item, and then bring those solutions back to the client for final signoff before you get to work. The important thing in this situation is to communicate openly with the client and work with them to fix the issue – poor communication was likely what landed you in this mess in the first place, so make sure the client is being actively given a part in fixing things. They’ll appreciate your upfront honesty and desire to make good.

How to avoid:

  • Ensure that you’re only using suppliers you trust, and if you need a new supplier or contractor for a project, work closely with them to monitor progress and quality.
  • Assess your communication process. Can improvements be made? What frameworks and policies would have prevented this disaster?
  • Check your contracts. How to do mitigate legally when a client isn’t pleased with the finished product?

Disaster 3: You’ve Micromanaged the Crap out of this project, and now everything is behind.

Ah, micro-management. It’s a trap many project managers fall into. After all, the best project managers are people who can juggle many different facets of a project. They’re big picture thinkers who also love the details. And that means they can be prone to wanting to control everything and everyone. A big clue that you’re micromanaging a project is if you’ve fallen behind because you personally have too much to do. If the bottlenecks are occurring at your end, it’s probably because you’re requiring input on every stage and task, and that’s just not necessary. The good thing is that micromanagement is easily fixed – it just means you need to let go of some of those extra responsibilities you’ve heaped upon yourself. There, doesn’t that feel better?
What to do when disaster strikes: you know already right – DON’T PANIC. Instead, go to the client as soon as possible and discuss an extension to the deadline. Then, make a list of all the tasks still to do, and which team member is responsible for them. Now comes the part that’s both easy and difficult. You need to let go of your desire to control every aspect of the project. Talk to each team member about their responsibilities until you’re satisfied they know what they need to do. Then, leave them to it. Trust their ability and professionalism to get the job done. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what people will achieve when you give them ownership.

How to avoid:

If you naturally tend toward perfectionism, then micro-managing your team will be a problem you constantly wrestle with. Here are a few tips to keep your tendencies in check:

  • Remember that you hired your team for a reason. They know what they’re doing (and if the problem is that they don’t, then that is a whole different issue). You have to let go of your desire to control everything. You need to focus on what you, personally control.
  • Review your project feedback loop. Make sure you have all the necessary checks and balances in place so that you can take yourself out of the equation as much as possible. This is one instance where having a project management methodology can really help. With a methodology in place, every person on the team can immediately see where their role fits in. It’s really easy to identify bottlenecks. In essence, the project management system actually takes over part of your role. It can be self-managing to a certain extent. See this article on the pros and cons of different project management methodologies.
  • Can your project management software help you manage your team without getting too involved? From your job management dashboard you can see the hours already worked, any associated milestones, and know instantly where each stage of the project is at. Using an online project management system like WorkflowMax will save you hours of chasing up status updates and enable to you have a quick check-in without disturbing the team.

Disaster 4: You Made An Assumption, and it was the wrong one.

You know the famous saying about making assumptions … and yet, in business we make them all the time. It’s all too easy to assume something that seems obvious, rather than just asking the client, stakeholder or contractor for clarification. 90% of the time everything works out perfectly, but the other 10% only leads to disaster.
What to do when disaster strikes… right, DON’T PANIC. Instead, set up a meeting with your team and find out how far along work has progressed based on your current assumptions (that you now know to be wrong). See if it’s practical to backtrack a little way without losing too much time. If not, the only solution is to go to the client with a request for an extension. I’m personally a big believer in owning your mistakes and moving on. First, come up with a plan for repairing the mistake. Then, go to the affected parties, explain that you made a mistake based off an assumption, and that it was a silly thing to do. Tell them what you’re doing to fix the situation, and get them to clarify any further questions you have.

How to avoid:

  • Don’t make assumptions. It’s easier said than done, so learn to look for the signs. If you’re squinting at a report or entry on your project management software and thinking. “I think that’s what they mean,” then pick up the phone or shoot an email out and ask.

Disaster 5: It’s Crunch Time And Your Project Management Software is Down!

Even with cloud-based systems, outages do occasionally happen. It is the nature of the beast. But this knowledge doesn’t help you remain in a zen-like state when you desperately need to update something or send out an invoice in your online project management system and it doesn’t work.
What to do when disaster strikes: DON’T PANIC. Instead, contact all the members of your team working on the project and figure out what still needs to be done. Is there work that can be completed while your system is offline? Try to establish when your system will be returned to full functionality. (Unfortunately, with unplanned outages, it’s impossible to know when things will get back, but most companies will be able to fix their systems within a matter of hours). If you’re using an online project management system, then keep your eyes locked on that provider’s blog. When WorkflowMax has an outage, we update users over our blog and via twitter, so use those channels to ask questions if a vital piece of software you’re using goes down. If you need to, call your client and let them know about the delay. This is totally out of your control, and they can’t hold you at fault for the outage.

How to avoid:

  • If you’re not using online project management system, now is the ideal time to switch over. You’re much less likely to experience downtime on a system like this, than you are to have something happen to your own servers or network.
  • Also, check the security and redundancy measures in place on any online project management system or other cloud-based software you use. Are you satisfied your data is protected from outages as much as possible.

Disasters Give You An Opportunity to Learn It can be hard to look on the bright side while you’re knee deep in horrific problems and delays on a project. But you can’t pull off a flawless project every single time. Mistakes happen, things go wrong, and people mess up. It’s what you do in the face of impending disaster that marks you as a good project manager. You need to be able to think fast, come up with solutions, motivate the team and smooth over the relationship with the client. Every disaster you encounter helps you to hone these skills and become better at your job. Disasters are awful, but they can also be learning opportunities in disguise. Embrace those opportunities and you’ll grow into one of the best project managers in your industry.