The Digital Project Manager recently published this article I wrote looking at how to survive the worst days of project management. They've been kind enough to let me reproduce it below.
If you do any job for long enough, you’ll definitely weather a few storms. Project management is no exception. I’ve been managing digital projects for over 7 years now, and while most days have been bright and clear, I’ve lived to tell the tale of some pretty rough seas.
When a crisis arises, it can be difficult as the project manager to know how to support your client and team while you’re still trying to figure out what went wrong. But fear not, intrepid DPMs, below you can find a list of my tried and true tips for surviving the darkest days of project management.
1. Breathe. It’s Going To Be Okay
When all heck breaks loose, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all. As the project manager, it’s pretty likely that you’ll be getting a stern talking to if the project has gone off the rails.
In these moments it’s normal to feel angry, hurt, confused, sad or a mix of all those things. It’s also normal to feel that you’re dealing with a very significant crisis. Which is why it’s good to take a deep breath and remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, this is likely a fairly small roadbump. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it is absolutely possible to seek out and create a sense of calm amidst a crisis.
I like to remind myself that if everybody’s still breathing and nobody’s bleeding, it’s going to be ok. So chin up, and be brave so that you can deal with what comes next.
2. Focus Only On What You Can Control
Worrying is a lot like riding a carousel—you feel like you’re getting somewhere, but you’re actually just going around in circles. When an emergency arises, you need to figure out what is within your control to fix and focus on that—and only that. Let everything else go. If you can’t change it, there’s no sense in worrying about it.
I once worked on a project for a large digital projection installation. The tech set up involved lots of projectors, mirrors and large panes of special glass. The glass was manufactured by only one company and they were located halfway around the world. We ordered the glass months in advance.
You can probably tell where this is going.
Lo and behold, on the day the glass arrived for installation it was dropped and broken. It was a shocking and panic-inducing moment, but after taking a deep breath we quickly came to the conclusion that we couldn’t change the fact the glass was broken and we couldn’t complete the installation without it. So we focused on what we could control, namely putting in an expedited order for new glass, updating the installation schedule and informing all stakeholders.
There are so many ways you can respond to a project in crisis—if you focus on what you can actually control, you’ll quickly find the best way to move forward.
3. Find The Root Cause
Remember all those things I told you to let go of in Step 2? Well now that the worst is over, I want you to think about all those things and determine what really caused the project crisis in the first place.
There are lots of great strategies out there for determining the root cause, but one of my favourites is The 5 Whys. This method gets you to ask why the problem happened, once you have you answer, you then ask why that happened—you do this at least 5 times to drill down to find the heart of the problem. The final step is to assign actions to fix each of the 5 root causes.
4. Learn From Your Mistakes
Now that you better understand the root cause, the next step is to determine the role that you played in creating the crisis. It’s natural to want to point fingers, but I’m willing to bet that if you had to go back and do it all again, you would do something differently. Let’s face it, generally speaking the fault lies with many different parties to varying degrees.
I’ve worked on a project where a key team member has decided to leave the company during a critical phase of work. I wasn’t responsible for this person’s departure, in fact he and I had a great relationship, but I’ll take part of the blame for not seeing it coming. In hindsight, it seemed obvious that he was stressed out and no longer enjoying his role. Had I been more proactive, I might have broached the topic with him, or at a minimum, given thought to whom we could bring in to cover for him if he were to depart.
It’s important to dig down deep and figure out how you contributed to the crisis. If you don’t acknowledge your mistakes, you deny yourself the opportunity to learn from them.
Once you’ve figured out the role you played, it’s time to share what you’ve learned with the rest of the team and encourage them to see how they contributed to the issue as well. You can get the ball rolling by leading a project retrospective to help improve your processes.
5. Improve Your Risk Management Strategy
One of my favourite quotes is by the American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. Just like a surfer learns to anticipate the waves and ride them safely to shore, you can learn to anticipate issues and go with the flow when they materialize.
The best way to reduce the likelihood of a project crisis is to improve your risk management practice. The trick is to not only anticipate issues, but to mitigate the likelihood of those issues by taking proactive measures.
Now go forth, DPMs, and safely surf the tidal waves of your project.