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What Should You Do When Your Project Goes Wrong? 7 Steps

Any project manager can tell you war stories about how some of their projects went terribly wrong. In fact, projects rarely go according to plan because it’s impossible to plan out every possibility that may happen in the future. That’s why the Project Management Institute (PMI) recommends setting aside a contingency budget before the project begins to deal with emergencies when projects don’t go according to plan.

Since projects are more risky by nature than operational work, it’s important to know which course of action to take when something does go wrong. In this article, I will outline the seven steps that you should follow:

1. Show Leadership & Stay Calm

When things go wrong, your team may point fingers at each other and you may see morale decrease. Your project sponsor may be worried about his or her status and reputation in the organization and try to “save face.”

During these difficult times, it’s important for you as the project manager to not be drawn into the panic. Your role is to find the best possible solution to deal with the impending situation and not to play the blame game. Showing leadership, control, and composure during a crisis and handling the situation with grace will win the respect of your project and leadership team.

2. Avoid Temptation to Act Immediately Based on Fears

The first thing to do when something goes wrong is often to do nothing. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s not. Remember the last time you did something when you were angry, but then regretted afterwards? The same concept applies on a project, except the consequences are more profound.

A common reaction project managers have when projects derail is to add more resources to it, thinking more people or money will solve the problem. Be wary of this practice. Adding more people to your projects means more communication channels and more chances for miscommunication. More chefs in the kitchen does not equal a better dish.

When there’s a crisis, your communication to your superiors and your project team has to be crystal clear. Take the time to gather facts and to interview your team in order to find the root cause of the problem. Clear communication means that everyone is aware of the issues and a sense of urgency is created.

3. Alert Project Sponsor & Stakeholders

After you’ve gathered all the facts as to what went wrong, you need to alert your project sponsors and relevant stakeholders of what’s going on. During your conversations, avoid the temptation to sugar coat the issue. Be as transparent as you possibly can because if your stakeholders discover the real issues on their own, they will no longer trust you. While your stakeholders may initially be upset, they will respect you for your honesty in the long run.

4. Review All Possible Course of Actions

Once you’ve discovered the root cause of the problems and communicated the problem to your team, sponsor, and stakeholders, it’s time to solve the problem. Set up a meeting with your team to brainstorm all possible courses of action that you can take, and list out the pros and cons to each course of action. You may even consider using a mutual third-party to act as a facilitator during these brainstorming sessions.

An important thing to note about this step is to make decisions “slowly.” Don’t rush into anything without considering all of the consequences because making changes down the road will be even more expensive. But once you’ve reached a consensus, implement it at a rapid-fire rate (see step 6).

5. Review Budget & Contingencies

At the beginning of your project, you should have planned for negative risks and put aside some contingency budget to deal with them if they were to arise. When your project is not going right, review your budget and the amount of contingencies you have left. Do you have enough money to get you through this crisis? Do you have enough money to implement your best course of action? Do you need to ask your sponsor for more money?

6. Implement

Once you’ve decided upon the best course of action, it’s time to implement it rapidly; you need to fix the crisis as soon as you can! Remember that good project managers make plans slowly and implement them quickly. If necessary, add more resources temporarily to help you finish the tasks faster.

7. Follow Up

This is the “check” stage of the Deming Cycle. During the follow up stage, you want to make sure that your plan is being implemented correctly and that the crisis is subsiding. If things are still not going right, go back to step 1 and repeat this cycle.

If your crisis is solved, document your lessons learned from this crisis so that other project managers in your organization can learn from them and avoid them in the future as well. Maybe, you can even suggest that the lessons learned from your project be added to internal training courses within your organization.

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