Sunday, July 6, 2008

How to React When Things Start Going Bad on a Project

Machiavelli: “As the doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time, unless it has been diagnosed and treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.”

Diagnosing problems early is the goal. If you can and apply corrective measures, issues are resolved or effectively managed. How do you identify risks? Other than that dull sinking feeling in your gut. Use your judgment and communications skills.

Ideally you have risk registers or have at least done enough risk analysis to be open to recognizing risks or when something is different. Lacking the formal elements isn’t a problem if the structures that identify risks (known or unknown) make it much easier to know when an issue starts and if it has the potential to pull the project into the tar pits.

Knowing that something is becoming an issue is the first step. Next find the root cause. This is critical because you want to address the root cause, not the symptom. How do you find the root cause?

Try thinking about it as similar to clicking down into hyper links in a web page. Rather than just talking like you're just reading along on a page, which is how most conversations go, click down to discover the deeper meanings.

Let me explain what I mean. Most conversations take place at the surface level. “Hi, how are you? Wasn’t the weather great over the weekend? Who do you think is going to win the game on Sunday? Did you get the report? etc. etc. etc.”

This conversation takes place entirely at the surface level. People talk without clicking down to the deeper level to look for meaning. To do so, think about asking reflective questions as a way to click down to the root cause. Reflective questions take the key idea from a statement and reflect it back as a question looking for more information about that area.

For example:

  • Developer: “We have a problem on the deliverable.”
  • Project Manager: “What is the problem?”
  • Dev: “The interface isn’t working”
  • PM: “What’s not working about the interface?”
  • Dev: “We can’t get what we need.”
  • PM: “What do you need?”
  • Dev: “The data we need isn’t there.”
  • PM: “What data is that?”
  • Dev: “The shipping notice information isn't available out of the ERP system in a way we can access it consistently.”

The example is greatly simplified, but it shows how reflectively asking questions helps you click down to identify root causes. The symptom is that there is a problem with the deliverable; the root cause is that the data can’t be accessed consistently through the interface.

If you identify the root causes, you can judge if there are issues to be managed or if those issues may grow into threats to the project. It is this judgment which differentiates great project managers from the competent.

Judgment is what you want to develop. Judgment can’t be measured or taught, it can only be learned. It’s a little like the abdominal snowman. You’ll see the footprints, but never the snowman.

You learn judgment through experience, making mistakes and learning. There are a couple of things to think about when you’re judging an issue:

  • Can it be addressed without affecting the critical path?
  • Will it significantly affect the project buffers?
  • What will the impact be?
  • How can I tell if it’s getting worse?

Use your judgment – it will help you learn and address issues early and effectively.


Dennis D. McDonald said...

Asking questions and listening - amazing how useful a tool this is. another thing about using social media in support of project management is that is possible to expose the "asking questions and listening" process to more people when that makes sense. That in turn helps create a sense of community/participation -- and it can help get questions answered faster. But the process does need to be monitored and managed.

Andrew Meyer said...


thanks for commenting. Its amazing how one can get caught up in sophisticated solutions when often times the simplest things make the most difference.