Resolving project problems – where to start

Project crisisMaybe you’re behind schedule or over budget. Perhaps there are some key issues turning your status Red. Or it might be the sponsor or steering committee are just unhappy with the way things seem to be going. Whatever the reason, the alarms bells are ringing. What should you do?

What NOT to do

Let’s start with some of the things you shouldn’t do. Top of the list is the knee-jerk reaction. Whether that is to deny there is a problem and defend the project/team/team member, or to take the problem at a superficial level and start firing off “solutions” the kneejerk reaction is almost certainly wrong.

Next on the list, is to think a new or changed technology solution is the answer. For example, “our planning isn’t good enough, let’s install Planview/Clarity/Primavera/Project Server…..”. If your planning is poor, an application won’t fix it. In fact it could mask the symptoms, give a false sense of security and distract people from dealing with the real issues. The right system might help you to plan better by being more organised and better structured but it won’t fix the planning fundamentals.

Finally, don’t just create another process, another report or another meeting. You’ll risk adding to the bureaucracy and clutter that could be part of the problem in the first place.

So what should you do?

Most project problems arise from people. Remember my mantra;

“Projects are delivered by people, for people, to people and impacting people”

So if your project is having difficulties, they will either be caused by people or be impacting people. So you first job is to find out which it is or whether it is a combination of both. In other words, a bit of good old fashioned problem analysis.

 Talk to people about what they see as the problem. Make sure you dig deep enough to find the real problem and the cause and not just identify the symptoms. You need to keep an open mind and accept what is being said. Seek supporting evidence but don’t deny things or defend positions. It’s about gathering facts and opinions to build a picture of what the problems are.

Problems impacting people

The sorts of problems that impact people are often schedule related. The project isn’t going to plan or is taking longer than expected and as a result budgets get stretched, the uncertainty caused by change or potential change is exacerbated, or people miss opportunities. Sometimes schedule related problems are self-fulfilling prophecies. The plan that was unrealistic from the outset will always end up upsetting someone!  

Resolving these problems involves getting people to be realistic. Sometimes things really do have to take a certain amount of time no matter what anybody might wish or however much resource you through at it. Nine women can’t have a baby in one month, it takes one, suitable supported woman, nine months. End of story!

Sometimes you can be innovative or creative. One programme I was running was suddenly asked to accommodate the implementation and integration of a new trading system alongside an already busy and troubled delivery schedule. I brought in a specialist integration consultancy to do the work and provided a project manager as the link person. The new system was delivered and integrated with minimal impact on the core programme.

Sometimes it helps to turn the problem on its head. A system was struggling to meet its overnight processing window. All sorts of tricks were being tried to shorten the overnight cycle but without significant savings. The answer was to look at what the business needed to have completed before start of day and run the rest of the batch cycle in the background while the system was open for their start of day tasks. A simple and relatively cheap solution that was only visible when the problem was looked at from a different angle or perspective. We looked at the impact on the people, the business, rather than the system.

Problems caused by people

People undoubtedly cause many project problems. Unrealistic delivery expectations often cause the schedule problems discussed above. Not enough time or money to do it right, but more often than not, they have to find the time and money to do it again (and often, yet again).

People and organisations also create problems when they have a vested interest. I heard only today of a story about a major government programme where one or more of the so called delivery partners were holding back and finding reasons for the programme to fail so that the prime contractor would lose the role thereby creating more openings for their own organisation. These particular situations can be very hard to safeguard against. I try to make all contracts standalone and where there are dependencies I try to ensure both sides have too much to lose to allow the other to fail.

There is also the internal politics situation – where colleagues seek to sabotage your project for their own ends. Whether that is to protect their own project budgets or resources or to curtail your career, these situations are often difficult to identify and even harder to prove. Only through experience do you develop the necessary political antennae to spot these problems. Then you have to be just as ruthless as the next project manager to state your case and defend your position. The good guys don’t always win just because they are the good guys. The best way to state your case and defend your position is by having a track record as a leader that delivers. Businesses back successful winners.

What project problems have you faced? Leave a comment and tell your story.

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