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Steps to Take When Your Project is in Danger
By Andrew Meyer

When times are good you can study things for a while, going over every pro and con. But when you’re in a crisis, there’s no time to run a study. You’ve got to put down on a piece of paper the ten things that you absolutely have to do. That’s what you concentrate on. Everything else – forget it. The specter of dying has a way of focusing your attention in a big hurry.– Lee Iacocca

When a project is mired in the tar pits, there are benefits and there are issues and threats. To successfully get out of the tar pits requires a clear understanding of the projects direction, the realization of where one is getting traction and most important: team morale. Know and align people’s motivations with these goals to succeed. How do you do this?

While it might seem counter-intuitive, a smart project manager working with their sponsor will set a project kill line. This has several major advantages.

  1. If there are silent assassins who want to kill the project, it gives them an effective and efficient way to do so. If you don’t know who they are, it might also provide a way to find out.
  2. It minimizes the effects of the endless death-march.
  3. It clarifies what is important from what is nice to have.

This last point cannot be underestimated. Many projects complain of scope creep, or what one confidant called “WIMBY – Wanted In My Back Yard”. As projects go along, many times people will try to get requirements added that benefit them or will make their lives easier. Some of this is simply the horse-trading necessary to move any project forward.

When a project gets stuck in the tar-pits, it is an ideal time to refocus and shrink the scope to what is really critical. Think about making a “Not right now” list. In this way, ideas and requirements which were collected as the project goes along are not lost, the people who submitted them are not forgotten and you’ve built a valuable list when you come to justify future projects. You and you sponsor will understand these requirements and the people who entered them better than anyone else.

Communicate what is happening to the people who entered the requirements. These people are now motivated to be supporters of your continued efforts on the project and should be turned into supporters of future projects.

Seeing if these people enlist and support your current, refocused project with an eye toward future projects will go along way towards learning who your real supporters are, who is apathetic and who your silent assassins may be. Don’t lose this opportunity, it is critical to take advantage of this and learn where people really stand in a crisis.

Clarify communications. There are three levels of communication which need to be understood.

  1. Project Sponsor – PM Communications
  2. Team Communications
  3. Organizational Communications

Project Sponsor – PM Communications

When things are in the tar pits is when you really prove yourself and learn how the project sponsor reacts and will react in the future. Make sure you understand how to best communicate with the project sponsor prior to problems and discover how they react faced with adversity. It is out of this relationship that success or failure will originate. Make sure you know the patterns of communication and become attuned to when, if and why they change. Investigate changes.

Team Communications

How you communicate with the project team in the face of a crisis will go a long way towards determining success. To succeed, people must have a clear idea of what is required to succeed. A crisis has a wonderful way of clarifying what is crucial. Make sure that what is being clarified is actually what is crucial. It is also crucial that people’s morale doesn’t get crushed.

Determining what is crucial is done between the project sponsor and PM. The team needs to be involved in this and feel that they have input. They should also have input into what goes on the “Not right now” list. It’s important that the team is a part of what’s happening. It’s also important to maintain morale.

More on the Organizational Communications later.

Andrew Meyer studied systems and industrial engineering before spending fifteen years implementing global IT and Business Process Re-Engineering projects. Frustrated with seeing communication issues hurt projects again and again, he returned to get his MBA from the University of Southern California and focused on project communications and risk management. To apply this to real-world problems, Andrew founded the Capability Alignment Professionals (http://www.CompanyAlign.com), which is dedicated to aligning incentives and encouraging communications. He discusses these issues in his blog Inquiries Into Alignment (http://alignmentinquiries.blogspot.com/)

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