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.

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