How To Negotiate A Project Crisis

By Mike Aucoin

Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"

Look beyond the humor of Yogi's statement and you'll see a truism. When you get to a fork in the road, it is important to take action!

A project team may encounter many forks in the road on the journey to project completion. There are certainly decisions to reach regarding project deliverables. But there are also different paths that a team can take concerning the energy and health of project team interactions. A project crisis is such a fork in the road and the response to the crisis often sets in place the mood, dynamics for communication, and commitment to problem-solving that a team will take with them for the remainder of the project.

As a project manager, your involvement at a crisis point is very important. You can dramatically affect the success of your project by your behavior and the behavior you encourage in your team members. Your most critical objective as a project manager through the crisis is to facilitate communication and problem-solving. Here are specific ways to do so:
  • Be present and be involved - It's amazing how many project managers are missing in action when a crisis occurs. Make sure you are on the scene.

  • Promote communication - When communication fails, it often goes underground and turns sour. Enable opportunities for people to communicate their needs and opinions out in the open. Ensure that all constituencies get heard, especially the customer and sponsor.

  • Re-direct negative energy - Crises can provoke conflict, frustration and anger. Pay attention to the emotions of the team and do not stifle negative energy. People feel what they do and that's valid. Let them express their frustrations, but set some ground rules: no personal attacks, and stick to the issues. Then channel the energy toward solutions.

  • Work the back channel - You see major international summit meetings where it appears that leaders with major differences magically go into a room for a day and come out with a breakthrough agreement. That's not the whole picture. Someone (think Henry Kissinger) works for months behind the scenes to work out the agreement - the public meeting is for ceremony. As a project manager, you must engage in a lot of communication one-on-one to get people to speak openly and pave the way to solutions. Try this and your public meetings can be much more fruitful. But be sure to respect what people tell you in confidence.

  • Promote a solution attitude - Teams can embrace challenges, or complain and place blame. A project manager can help set the tone and encourage people to join in a problem-solving attitude. Does everyone understand the problem and the key success factors? What are the creative ways out? Just be sure to work to a timely decision.

  • Use process to your advantage - Recently our project team held a meeting to discuss a touchy topic. We carefully set up the meeting agenda to promote honest but respectful communication leading to a decision. The first part of the meeting provided information and clarification, the middle part was a forum for opinions with all parties heard, and the last part defined consensus. This approach enabled the group to avoid a quagmire and reach a valid group consensus. It was a great example of using process to head off trouble and channel it to closure.
A project crisis is one time when the project manager's communications and leadership skills are really brought to the test. Follow Yogi's advice and these steps and you'll find that project crises can be successfully navigated to keep your project on track to a great outcome!

This article originally appeared in the Successful Project Management Newsletter, September, 2000.

Copyright © 2000, Management Concepts, Inc.

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