Help! Our project is in crisis!

Peter Burghardt07/03/2019

Here we go again. Another project in crisis. The worst-case scenario actually went and happened or something like that.  Panic rules everyday life. No one knows what to do. Project crises really can go down this way – if they’re even recognized early at all.

What is a project crisis?

In many areas, a project crisis is defined pretty simple. Project discontinuity is whenever one or more project goals cannot be attained.

But right off the bat, we run into some questions.

  • What if there aren’t any project goals?
  • What if the project goals are not measurable?
  • What if the project stops progressing, but the project goals can still be attained?
  • What if the project crisis does not affect the project goals because the goals were wrong to begin with?
  • And what even are the right project goals?

Why crises don’t occur

So, what are these crises really about? There is a problem with the project, perhaps an issue that had already been mitigated at the risk management stage (if one took place) or had already been discussed by the various steering committees (if there are any).

Now, you would suppose that the actors, decision-makers and project leaders would get to work on finding a solution. But usually the problem is far more complex than that.

Due to a lack of measurable project goals, the crisis actually goes unnoticed. What does usually catch people’s attention is the bad mood of everyone involved. Their motivation is “on-and-off,” and the customer starts to get worried.

A project doesn’t go into crisis mode overnight

A project crisis is often seen as a failure. Granted, a project doesn’t typically go into crisis mode overnight. It’s a process that progresses slowly but surely and then picks up speed towards the end. Usually, for whatever reason, there’s a deviation from the plan. The word mistake would only apply if mistakes were part of the learning process. If you don’t make mistakes, you usually can’t find out how you can improve.

Plucking up the courage to declare a crisis

Declaring a crisis takes courage and should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Trying to bury a crisis instead of admitting it, whitewashing the facts – now that’s a mistake. This prevents the underlying issue from being resolved quickly and efficiently.

Oftentimes, people just assume that everyone in the project already knows that they’re in the midst of a bona fide project crisis. So, they collapse like a pile of pick-up sticks – you move, you lose. The first one who declares or addresses the crisis is the one who’s “guilty.”

By definition, projects enter into unknown territory – so it’s not a crime to make mistakes along the way and realize that you’ve gone the wrong direction here or there.

Hurray, we’re in crisis!

Ok, let’s be serious for a moment. Project crises are pretty unpleasant. Not many people like to admit their mistakes. That’s why it’s important to handle the crisis the right way. Finger-pointing and playing the blame game doesn’t get you anywhere. We’re not in kindergarten anymore and saying things like “he did it first” don’t work. This situation calls for honest troubleshooting; we need to find the cause of the crisis. Once the root of the evil is known, it becomes possible to devise and implement suitable countermeasures.

It often helps to get some people from the outside to moderate workshops on overcoming the crisis or provide an outsider’s perspective.

Keeping a cool head

A project crisis should not be left to devolve into chaos. To prevent people from frantically attempting anything and everything to fix the problem, it’s a good idea to take the time to think about what you can do in case of a crisis right at the start of the project. That way, under extreme circumstances, you won’t have to scramble to figure out what to do, whom to notify and who is allowed to make decisions.

Here’s an example from one sector: paramedics frequently perform reanimations. Under the extreme circumstances when a patient has to be reanimated, paramedics don’t need to wonder what to do. It all happens automatically.

In any case, the crisis does need to be announced, so that everyone involved in the project, as well as the stakeholders, will know what’s going on. After that, work on the project will have to be suspended, at least for a short time. Why? Because the goal cannot be attained by working the same as before. Continuing to work under these premises would be tantamount to moving along on the same course, knowing that you’re steering straight into an iceberg. So, something has to be changed.

The best way to overcome a project crisis is to take a structured approach. Identify the cause – derive remedial actions – check to ensure that the actions are effective. Once the crisis is under control, this also needs to be communicated in order to then move forward with the adapted working method.

More on the subject

Our project management team will be happy to help you with any crisis you might be in or with a new project.

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Project crisis – and then what?

Once they’ve survived a crisis together, a project team comes out stronger and more motivated. Typically, you’ll soon see improvements in the project. If not sooner, then at least after the crisis has passed, you’ll find that it wasn’t all for nothing. And then another project goes down for the same reasons. Making mistakes once is fine, but making the same mistakes repeatedly is something that shouldn’t happen.

It’s important to share project experience within the organization, so that everyone can learn from each other’s mistakes. Otherwise, the crisis really was for nothing.

How do you avoid the iceberg?

The best project crises never take place at all. Not because no one had the guts to declare them, but because they never happen in the first place. Crises can be averted through consistent controlling, risk management and efficient communication and coordination (verlinkt auf den Beitrag “… kindergarten…”)

And now, one more little “but”: since project management probably consists of about 30 % tools / hard facts and 70 % of social skills / management know-how there’s an important part missing here. I’m talking about the social skills / social intelligence of the project manager, who needs to keep a constant watch on the organization, the goals and the social interaction in the project. This is the only way to identify and avert crises early on.

Already in crisis?

Hopefully it’s not because of what you’ve just read. But if your project is in crisis or “just” in distress, call for back-up. Feel free to reach out to us. We’ve already been through a few project crises and overcome them, too.

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Peter Burghardt
Project Manager