First moments of a crisis are the most defining – your actions in this phase will determine the outcome of the crisis as well as the impact it will have on everyone involved. Proper management helps minimise the possibility of a crisis, but sometimes, against your best efforts, it happens. This is where and when a competent project manager makes all the difference.
Like in a chess game, the first move in a crisis will strongly impact what’s coming next. Doing the wrong thing in the very beginning may put you, your team and even the project itself in a delicate situation.
The most common mistake in a crisis is to deny it. You convince yourself, and those around you that if you could just buy some more time, everything would get back to normal without anyone noticing. It’s a delusion!
In this article, I will discuss the cases I run into the most and how to handle them:
Scenario #1: The escalation comes from the Customer/User.
Scenario #2: The escalation is called by the project manager
Scenario #3: The crisis is caused by external factors.
It doesn’t matter what kind of project you are dealing with: construction of a bridge or release of new software, even the reasons that lead to the escalation are not important – in the end, it always comes down to Costs, Quality, Time and Interpersonal Issues.
Customer Moves First: The Customer’s Escalation
Customer dissatisfaction leads to escalation. When you find yourself in this situation, use the time left before the crisis starts to prepare yourself, presuming that you’ve already done everything possible on the Project Level (see the concept of tolerance) to avoid this situation.
Most of the articles out there focus on handling the crisis once it’s started. But the real secret is to take action before the crisis is officially declared, not to avoid it but to manage it.
Don’t Run and Hide!
This is the stage where your communication skills are needed the most. You must empathise with the customer. The goal is to understand the situation fully, to define the true needs and expectations, see where the real problem is. It’s all about knowing what led to the crisis.
A classic mistake is to see the customer as the enemy. The attitude “the customer is 100% wrong, I am 100% right” leads to a stand-off.
You should start from the common point and try to analyse what each of you must do to reach a common ground. Even if you come to an understanding, you may still face a crisis (for reasons like extra costs, delays in delivery, de-scoping of the project or the need to remove someone), yet it will not be caused by conflict but finding a common solution to the problem.
In most cases, there is an in-between solution that could fit everybody.
Give Warning Signals to Your Stakeholders
At the first sign of crisis, inform your stakeholders that there might be some problems ahead. This doesn’t mean you should rush them into the crisis mindset but prepare them for the possibility of a crisis.
You may end up with a couple of false alarms due to your vigilance. Still, I prefer this over having to explain from scratch a situation to an audience of worried stakeholders. Also, by keeping your them updated, they’ll already have the necessary information on what’s behind the crisis.
Prepare Your Case
During one of the crises I was dealing with a while back, I came to a meeting with a client carrying so many documents, mail print-outs and personal notes, I reminded myself of a lawyer preparing to argue a case. Sounds funny but this is exactly what you need to do! Managing a project makes you responsible for its success, but also for its failure. When a crisis happens, people start asking questions – questions to which you need to be able to provide solid answers. This requires preparation and gathering all the information and documents that will support your arguments.
Be thorough and do your homework. You must be able to address any event in the project, at any moment. Gather all the information on the project, not only regarding the crisis. A small tip: pay particular attention to the financial aspect because sooner or later, it all comes down to costs.
Prepare the Alternatives
Your role is not only to explain the situation but to propose a way out.
At this stage, you must have an idea on how to solve the situation. If not, you still have time to suggest a workshop or create a task force.
In the end, you should have at least three alternatives to offer. Avoid trivial proposals (such as close the project, do everything the customer is asking) at all costs. If those where viable solutions you should have proposed them in the first place before the crisis ever happened! They are usually rejected, so discussing them is a waste of time for everyone. Alas, if you have to go there, let the stakeholders come to this conclusion on their own after hearing your case.
Be sure to cover technical, time related and economic aspects of the proposal.
I usually present three options: one of low impact for the project, one of lesser impact to end users and one in between. The idea is to push the discussion to a solution where everyone is showing good will by accepting a compromise.
Noises Off, Curtain Up, Showtime!
This is the moment where many Project Managers fail. It’s not about the planning or leadership anymore but your communication skills!
You’ll have the stakeholders, management and probably end users (customers) in front of you. All of them have some information on the project, but it is probably only a part of the picture. Be prepared for having some critics.
Keep in mind that you will not be able to convince everybody, so choose your targets carefully.
I always do a presentation that includes visuals with only some basic, easy to understand, information.
Take a look at a couple of pointers I always find useful:
- Start with a short roadmap of the project, milestones, critical events. At this stage, everybody sees the project as a failure – show them some positive aspects!
- Describe the crisis: make sure you’ve explained the reasons that lead to the crisis, not from your personal point of view but using the customers’ language so they can recognise themselves.
- Explain the risks of unresolved crisis ( the project is delayed or stopped, costs increase, the overall goals of management are endangered, etc.). This is usually the part that stakeholders will be most concerned about – covering it shows you are focused on finding the solution and not on setting the blame or giving excuses.
- Finally, propose the possible way out of the crisis.
When you make your case, take a step back and let people take over the conversation. Be ready to answer questions but don’t take the lead in the discussion unless you are asked to by the stakeholders.
During the discussion, you might have to face some negative comments or accusations directed at you and your team. This is normal because, you as a Project Manager, are by definition, accountable for the project.
Shield your team and don’t spend too much time defending yourself. Accept the responsibility for some of the accusations (if there is a crisis, you surely could have done something better).
But most of all, keep calm.