Leading Your Team Through Difficult Times


When a project isn't going well, it's important to stay on track and keep the current and future project tasks in perspective. How do you keep your team focused on the project at hand and your client confident and calm?

We all know that project management isn’t easy, that more projects fail than succeed, and that experiencing difficult times on a project—specially a longer-term project—is much more of probability than a possibility.

We encounter project issues on a near-daily basis and must deal with them as efficiently and effectively as possible. But the bigger problems—that may or may not come up on a particular project—can have significant impact. These problems are the ones we must be prepared to handle and make quick decisions on in order to keep the project on track. Examples of big issues that I’ve either personally dealt with or have witnessed colleagues dealing with include:

  • Turnover of key project team members
  • Major technology issues causing much rework or a near restart on the project
  • Client funding changing causing delays or cancellation of the project
  • Closure of the delivery organization leaving a project hanging

So, when the project isn’t going well, or when the known gives way to the unknown, how do you cope? How do you stay on track and keep the current and future project tasks in perspective? How do you keep your team focused on the project at hand? How do you keep your client confident, content, and satisfied?

Rather than shouting, “The sky is falling!” I’ve found that focusing on core project management practices—basically PM best practices—is usually the best way to try to keep the project on track. Some of those best practices to focus on are efficient and effective communication, revising and delivering a project schedule to the customer and team every week, managing issues and risks on a weekly basis, maintaining budget oversight and reviewing forecast against actuals every week, delivering a weekly status report, and holding a weekly status call with the team and customer every week no matter how little or how much has happened that week.

Of course, depending on the cause of the adversity, you may have to take corrective action as well. Here’s my usual five-step process for managing difficult times on a project.

1. Get your team together to assess: I’ve always found it’s best to have one or more proposed solutions before going to the customer, so when a major issue arises, I gather the team first to assess and plan. Don’t delay of course, because critical time can be lost. But if the problem isn’t too time-sensitive, and you have time to gather your team to assess the damage, then do it.

2. Come up with a plan of action: Work with your team to come up with one or more courses of action to present to your customer. When my company shut down in the middle of a major project, the only option I really had was to break the news to the client organization’s CIO, which I promptly did. Then I offered to continue in a consulting role along with the key developer to help the organization get to a point in the project where they could find another vendor to complete the engagement. And that’s exactly how the project played out.For smaller issues—like the loss of a key resource or the need to make a technology change—then it’s best to begin planning for (and estimating the cost of) the change and presenting numbers, timeframes, and impacts to the customer so they can work alongside you as a fully informed participant in the corrective action process.

3. Go to your project customer: Once you have assessed the situation and come up with possible solutions, go to your customer with one or more plans of action in hand along with at least rough estimates that will enable them to help you and your team make the best decision for the next course of action. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It’s best not to just take problems to your customer—also take solutions.

4. Come to a consensus and work on it: Once you, your team, and your customer have jointly decided on which course of action to take, rework the project schedule and begin to implement the new plan. Even if that new plan—in the face of drastic project issues—is to shut the project down entirely, there still needs to be a disposal-type plan in place on how to best close out the project possibly with a later restart in mind as well. Always try to think and act positively.

5. Continue to execute on the project: At this point it’s time to move forward but make sure you practice the general PM functions that make for consistent, sound project management: Hold the regular weekly status calls, create and distribute status reports, continue resource and budget forecasting, and maintain the project schedule as you always have. It’s critical that you continue to focus on PM best practices. Consistency usually wins and just because you’re facing adversity doesn’t mean you should throw the basics out the window. In fact, that’s the very time you need them the most.



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