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Proactive Problem Management in Project Management
By Susan Peterson

Could the Columbia shuttle disaster have been prevented? Could the Challenger shuttle disaster have been prevented? Seventeen years separate the two tragedies, but little appears to have been learned about allowing “bad news” to be heard — and in this case, lives to be saved. Unfortunately, NASA is not unique in the project management arena when it comes to discounting problems.

Even the best managed projects have problems or challenges that must addressed. The following sources are just a small sample of the areas that can disrupt a project:

  • Specifications that don’t make technical sense
  • Requirements that arise during the project
  • Budgets that force shortcuts due to lack of funds
  • Completion dates that do not allow adequate test time
  • Policies and procedures that “cover up” problems or “punish” the messengers

Every good project manager knows that risk management and contingency planning are part of well managed projects. However, in many cases there is no part of a project strategy that addresses how to handle those inevitable times when someone discovers a problem and highlights it. The project manager’s reaction to the first problem that is identified sets the tone for the remainder of the project. The optimum response is to remain calm, listen attentively and then ask the person what he/she thinks should be done. This type of response is especially critical if the problem is raised during a project team meeting. The team readily observes that problems can be discussed. They also learn quickly that the project manager does not intend to solve every problem. This practice virtually eliminates “whining” and forces team members to focus on solutions rather than on obstacles. It also promotes teamwork as many times the resolution requires input from multiple sources.

Project team members also face challenges when raising issues that need to be addressed. To avoid being squelched when identifying problems, team members can use these techniques:

  • Do advance research to quantify the severity of the problem and its impact on the project outcomes
  • Determine which of the tradeoffs (cost, time or quality) is most important
  • Use criteria and terminology that the sponsor/customer/client understands
  • Provide a solid solution and if necessary, a “fallback” alternative

Nothing will bring back the courageous people who perished in the shuttle accidents. However, as project managers and team members we can dedicate our efforts to focusing on constructive, proactive problem management.

© 2010 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at susanada@aol.com.

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