Project managers are always under people’s watchful eyes. Whether it is management or team members, someone is always looking at how they deal with conflict, how they celebrate success, how they acknowledge good work, or how they point out gaps. It’s not easy to be under the magnifying glass all the time, and it becomes even harder in escalated situations.
Experienced project managers probably know all about rejection from a major customer, failure in an accreditation lab, bad application reviews in a magazine, or an unfortunate safety issue. These situations are difficult to deal with – and are ten times harder for the project manager. People will remember if you react with panic or if you deal with the situation calmly.
How do you stay calm when your project implodes?
Here are our 5 tips on what to do and not to do.
1. Take a Step Back
Instinctively, you might rush in to respond immediately – but is that your best choice? Nine times out of ten stopping to think about the situation will reveal a more appropriate response and better decisions.
“Thank you for the report, let’s get back to it in our meeting this afternoon”, or
“It’s challenging. I need to think about it.”
Both reactions recognize a negative situation without trying to resolve it on the spot.
Taking a step back, leaving the scene for a few minutes, going for a short walk, or eating a snack are opportunities for us to clear our mind and regard the issue from a different angle. The break helps get the creative juices flowing – and more often than not, we will handle the situation, any situation, more calmly and probably more productively.
“Let’s talk about it after lunch.”
2. Analyze the Situation
Be very cautious in accepting bad news. People have diverse interests, different levels of project knowledge, and they might report false alarms. Before you go into a frenzy, and if the reporting source is reliable, ask for more information about the issue. You will be amazed at how often rumors turn into bad news just because they weren’t sufficiently validated.
When bad news is thrown your way, breathe, take a step back, and then ask the reporter for more information. Avoid putting the reporter on the spot, because it can serve to recognize the “importance” of their report (but you don’t know yet if or how important it is…). Most of the time the messenger will be cooperative in adding more data. If they are not, take the time to explain why additional information is needed.
3. Take Wisdom from Strangers
Keep an open mind about the opinions of the people you work with. Seek the wisdom of a third person, outside of your group. This individual should have no vested interest in the outcome of the project or whether it fails or succeeds, which is why their opinion will be objective and unbiased. This will help you to clear the cloudy sky of information to make better decisions.
It’s a known fact that a new, fresh pair of eyes may have insights on the problem, which could ultimately be beneficial for your outcome.
4. Be Robustly Flexible
Have a single Plan of Record, but keep it on the flexible side.
Have you ever thought about why bad news is so disruptive? People dislike bad news because it implies change, new tasks and sometimes chaos. But, you can make it simpler for them and even help ease their emotional reaction.
One way of keeping things under control is to insist on a single Plan of Record. This means that as the project manager you should never let the project team leave the meeting room with too many options, even when several are needed.
Consider for example a project team looking for a vendor in a critical area:
After lengthy courtship and negotiations, the team suddenly receives a message from the vendor saying: “Sorry, but we can’t take this job”.
Obviously, the team must now find a different vendor and the implications for the project are significant, leaving the project team in limbo and wasting time.
Alternatively, the project team can be decisive and move on to the next best vendor from the candidate list. Such cutthroat decisions help keep the project team on track. While the project train may suffer a slight delay, it will not lose certainty of direction, and negativity can be avoided.
Prefer to stick to a single Plan of Record, but be willing to change it slightly if and when needed.
“Let’s start out with this many people in the warehouse, and we can always add more hands if needed.”
5. Learn Lessons in Failures and Future Remedies
After the sh*t has hit the fan the project manager must get up, clean up, and try again, using a slightly different approach. When you sidetrack to get back on track, the most important thing to remember is NOT to repeat the same mistake twice! One way to avoid a repeat is to think about what went wrong. Then, isolate those steps in your mind, or preferably on paper. When you do this, any wrong actions, mistakes or miscalculations become clearer. This will allow you to pinpoint exactly where one of the wagons blew a wheel.
Most importantly, maintain your leadership – don’t let your team notice that this setback fazes you in the least (even if it does!). Bad news is disruptive, but your tone of voice and your body language can help keep things together.
These five tips will help you stay calm when your project implodes. Take a step back, analyze the situation, take the wisdom of strangers, be robustly flexible, and learn lessons from what goes wrong. Following this approach will keep your project moving no matter what goes wrong, and will help you lead through the roughest situations to success.