9 Steps to Regaining Project Control
I don’t know about your experiences, but when I’m managing projects I rarely have the luxury of running just one project at a time. Even if I have a large engagement on my plate, I usually have at least a couple of other projects going on concurrently. That said, it’s easy – when issues come up on any project – to let that project or one of the other quieter projects get a little off track or a little out of control. And, if the project with issues or high priorities goes out of control then the damage can be large, the magnifying glass on you can be huge, and the customer satisfaction can be of major importance.
For this discussion, I really can’t focus on any single project issue or topic that can cause us to get behind or lose some control on our projects, because the list of potential problems is essentially infinite. Some are even outside of our control, but most have to do – directly or indirectly – with budget, time, or customer satisfaction. Or at least they can cause problems with one or two or all three of these. So let’s consider this in general terms – what do we do to help get our project back on course?
Here is my 9 step process to analyze, assess, plan, inform, and execute…
1. Assess the issue. First, assess the situation as thoroughly as possible. At this point you are doing it alone, personally as the project manager. It doesn’t matter if you found out about it, or it was an ongoing issue, or a 3rd party such as a team member brought it to your attention. And even if your assessment only lasts 15-30 minutes, I feel strongly that the project manager has responsibility for performing an initial assessment and creating the beginnings of a rough action plan before taking it to the team. The project manager needs to be in charge, in control, and give the appearance of being properly briefed and prepared to begin planning for action.
2. Rein in the team. Next, bring the team together to discuss the issue(s) and begin to devise at least a rough course of action. Again, this needs to happen quickly and not take too much time. You aren’t putting together the overall plan for action, you’re still in the early assessment and analysis phase. Any delay here means a delay in notifying the client…so this needs to be about one hour or less (depending on the severity and/or complexity of the situation).
3. Meet with the customer. In this next step, we actually notify the client. If this pertains to ongoing issues, then it’s likely the client is already aware. However, they may be working with you in ongoing break/fix mode (most of us have been there where we fix one issue and create two more new ones as a result when we test the fix) and may not realize you’re at a point where additional or more significant action is about to be taken. At any rate, this is where you sit down with the client and either break bad news to them – while tell them you are vigorously working on a course or courses of action to present to them shortly – or that you are working to present a more finalized plan of action to attack what has been ailing the project to this point. Give them a time frame – preferably no more than a day or two – that you will be coming back to them with solidified plan or plans of action.
4. Meet with senior management. You knew that you were going to have to take it to senior management sooner or later – and now is the time. Depending on the issue and situation, senior management may already be aware that the project has issues or is in some sort of trouble. This is where you present the full picture, and a draft plan of action for next steps resolution. You should probably also have at the ready any requests you have of them – perhaps now is a good time for them to make a phone call to the project client to reassure them that the best team is on it and will be returning with a course of corrective action in the next 24-48 hours. Reassuring the customer at this time is one of your biggest concerns – you want to keep that customer satisfaction as high as possible and keep them as informed as possible. Seeing that your senior management is involved will likely calm them rather than cause concern to escalate.
5. Devise 3+ action plans. Next, work with your team (and senior management if necessary and/or appropriate) to devise three or more possible plans of action. This is an introductory step to the next step – where you must really come up with a good plan of action.
6. Brainstorm options (customer optional depending on level of involvement and type of project). Here you are once again working with your team – the experts – to finalize a plan of action. Leave senior management out at this point because you’ll be getting their approval/signoff of your plan in the next step anyway. Weigh the technology, the costs, the timeframe and any current restrictions with the project and come up with the solution that seems to be the best fit considering all of those constraints. This is where you really finalize the next steps. Involving the customer in this process is optional depending on their level of involvement and the complexity of the solution or plan.
7. Present choice to senior management. Since you’ve involved senior management in this already, you’re going to want to inform them of your plan and get that buy-in. If you don’t – and something happens – everything is on you and your team. That should not be the case – you represent your organization. Get senior management approval because, believe it or not, they may have some helpful input you had not yet considered.
8. Present choice to customer. Here is where your presentation skills, negotiation skills, and leadership skills may need to be called on all at once. You’re going to present the chosen solution to the customer, get their approval of the chosen course of action, and make them feel comfortable and confident that you and your team know what you’re doing. Good luck.
9. Strategize and execute. Finally, strategize with your team and the customer on how best and when best to implement the chosen course of action, and…then execute that plan. Have the proper technical support ready. Think of it almost like a disaster recovery demonstration. Be prepared for the risks and be ready to have not everything work 100% as intended. The stronger your execution is on this, the stronger your customer’s confidence in you and your team’s ability to deliver will be.
Some or all of these will work – at least to some degree – for any type of sizeable project issue you might be facing. Of course, it isn’t necessary to take every issue to senior management, involve all stakeholders in the analysis and decision making processes, or even notify your project client concerning every issue that arises. But significant issues that arise – and that’s the assumption here…that we are dealing with something significant and potentially project course altering – are going to involve most or all of these steps to some degree.
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