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  • I will assume you believe people can make a bigger, faster difference toward success when engaged well and respectfully. No matter what you find on the ground when you arrive to help, people can solve problems faster when treated this way rather than when they are told, pushed, directed, and treated as dispensable.

    If you feel people are a means to an end and you don’t value the individual as a human being but rather more as an asset only, then this blog is probably not going to be of help to you.

    As part of my work as a business change consultant and coach, I have had the privilege of helping organisations and their teams when projects get into trouble. I call it a privilege because the people I come across on the ground when I arrive are invariable hard working, keen, and really want some help. And they are now confused and uncertain and don’t know how to deal with where they are.

    This is an incredibly humbling position to be in. People are in a state of stress and feeling vulnerable; there is usually a strange sense in the air when I arrive, a sort of mix of both loyalty and fear because action has been replaced with dread and bewilderment asking ‘how did we get here’ as realisations hit that the team, function, project or company is suddenly (or so it appears) not where it should be and that consequences may now be serious—both for the company and people on the ground.

    As An Example…

    Team tries to recover a distressed project

    A project sponsor, for example, usually calls me in as a kind of last resort. Frustrated by the situation, they decide enough is enough after assessing from afar with a watchful eye that things aren’t going the way they should be. Sometimes the sponsor can be closely linked to the person directly responsible for the situation now in distress.

    Most of the time, my arrival into a distressed project is greeted with a kind of hopeful hesitation by those involved. You may find this too if you arrive in a situation, for example, a project where changes are likely, and you are the one recommending and leading those changes (for a time anyway). How long a company took to decide to act to address the distressed situation has major implications for the likelihood of success for your work to get things back on track. You can read ‘#1 Thing That Breaks Projects (And Is Likely In Your Control)’ here about the one big thing that if handled well initially makes a big difference to a project’s ultimate success or failure—and usually this one thing, to a certain extent, is in a company’s control. Worth a read!

    This initial situation of a sense of vulnerability particularly, which as I said is what I often find when I first arrive to help with a project in distress, motivates me greatly to get things done in double quick time, to rough out a mud map toward clarity so that both the company and people involved know where they stand and what the likely next steps are. Where possible I try to reassure quickly. If you find yourself in a similar leadership situation responsible for getting things back on track, get things done as quickly as you can. I guess we’d call these quick wins.

    So, what are the things that you need to focus on when dealing with a distressed company, team, or project situation?

    So, I wanted to share my approach for when I hit the ground in these sorts of project situations, a sort of standard checklist I have in my mind when I first arrive and in the early days. The list is born out of over 25 years of experience and success (and not) and serves me well when it comes to getting a project (or team or function) back on track to clarity and positive momentum.

    The very first thing you need to do is you must demonstrate you are ‘hitting the ground fast’ toward helping everything get back on track to clarity and forward momentum.

    Note I didn’t say back on track to success. Clarity first. Forward momentum second. Success may be third. Please do note that although success is often the case, there are some situations where the project or the team or the circumstances have been left for too long without care and attention and the situation is almost irretrievable.

    If you find yourself inheriting or becoming aware of a distressed project, team, or function, here is what to do in the initial stage. Do it in this order and quickly.

    My 6-Point Checklist

    Checklist concept

    Here is my 6-point checklist that guides my initial entry into a distressed consulting assignment:

    1. Define the problem & how it came about. Consult widely and quickly.
    2. Define the level of sponsor, senior support for your work. How important to the company is this?
    3. Regarding the actual team or function involved, connect with them fast by email, group meeting, and face-to-face or individual Zoom in this order with little time gap between each form of connection.
    4. Ask ‘Who else?’ Who else is impacted or impacts this project/situation? Find out. Meet them. Understand.
    5. Timing — give yourself 30 days maximum to make inroads and bring things back to clarity if no deadline given.
      • Meet with all key stakeholders regularly, getting the difficult decision over quickly (e.g. reducing headcount) and importantly handle the decision implementation with the dignity of those affected top of mind and informing your approach.
      • No matter what.
      • This is not only the right way to go about this sort of implementation but if this reason alone doesn’t do it for you then remember those left behind in the company after your decision is implemented. That is the remaining team, and colleagues will be watching and will hear about how others were treated and take this as the company’s general approach going forward.
      • This can influence their decision whether to stay on in your company, team, or function. These people are likely your key resources that you need. This makes good business sense.
    6. Finally, use this checklist as the basis for a high-level plan to share with all stakeholders so they can see what you are doing and in what order. This builds trust and helps people feel reassured things are progressing forward. Note this plan is not about promising anything. It is about showing there is a structured process to resolution. This will help everyone no matter what the outcomes.

    As I am called in when usual actions to fix a situation in distress don’t work (or haven’t worked)—even actions like replacing or firing people may have been tried in an attempt to not get this far gone into distress and non-performance, lack of productivity—often there are earlier warnings than the one that led to the phone to me.

    Another way for you to reduce the chances of distressed projects and teams in your company and on your watch is to scan for what I call the early warning signals—signals that triggered your gut feeling in the first place and now demand more investigation.

    Don’t ignore your gut feeling. It is always right. Just sometimes the interpretation of that gut feeling may be off and is what lets you down in the end. So, learn to surround yourself with good factual evidence like impartial data and seek out relevant subject matter experts ideally who are critical thinkers and respectful disagree-ers (you want people who are technically strong not people who are without critical thought) from in and outside the company ideally.

    This information and help from others will help you make sure your interpretation of what your gut feeling is saying is as accurate as possible.

    Then you decide whether you ignore or act on that gut feeling because now you have both data and impartial external input from others you trust and know or seek out that can help you in your decision making. This approach saves me time and continues to serve me well, particularly when it comes to identifying early warning signs well before a situation, team, function or project get into a distressed and difficult situation.


    Professional woman looks at documents at work

    ​If you find yourself appointed to help resolve a distressed work situation, team, or project, use the 6-point checklist as a guide.

    Pay attention to the ‘how’ you go about implementing each step as much as doing each step quickly and effectively. There is more at stake here than meets the eye. If you believe people are the critical resource and central to your organisation’s ongoing health and success, the ‘how’ you handle the implementation to address the distressed work situation is equally important as to the structure and steps in the approach and actually getting it done.

    Good luck. I would love to hear what you think and about your experiences in dealing with distressed situations.

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  • I have spent many man-years serving as a project manager both formally and informally. I confess—I do not like project management. Project managers often have all responsibility with minimal authority. PMs are the face of problems to the customer and take many hits for actions outside of their control. PMs often do the “dirty work” in the project while others receive the glory. However, being a PM is necessary for organizational success.

    I may not like it; however, I respect being a PM. PM actions are necessary and difficult. These activities can be rewarding if executed well. PMs must be able to respond quickly, and these ideas are some of the lessons I learned the hard way.

    What Is Being A PM Anyway?

    Project management/manager concept

    Being a project manager, you are the coordination between many factions all working together to accomplish a larger task. You are the glue to hold projects together, and you are the central node to the spider web network among the team members.

    Project managers absorb information from all the stakeholders and consolidate these inputs into a unified plan of action. This plan defines the course for completing the project. Schedules, action item lists, documentation, and meetings originate with the PM for dissemination. PMs should be the first to know about problems, and they often work to mitigate risks to the overall project.

    How Do You Be A Good PM?

    Project manager talks during a work meeting

    Being a good PM takes some effort. You cannot passively manage a project and expect positive results. You need to act.

    My recommendations have developed over years of experience. I have made mistakes, and I have learned to incorporate strategies to avoid my previous transgressions. Although I am not saying these are the “be all/end all” list of actions, I think these strategies can plant the seeds for your own activities.

    Communicate, Communicate, And When You Think You Are Done, Communicate More

    Project manager communicates with her stakeholders

    Regardless of the size of the team or the complexity of a project, I believe you cannot over-communicate. The team must be aware of the project status and decisions made to ensure success.

    Shying away from problems without sharing them with the team is a common mistake. PMs must communicate the good, the bad, and the very ugly. Failure to share these details drives mistrust. Rumors begin, and stories unfold. Communicating the truth builds trust and unity among stakeholders.

    Frequency is a balance, and PMs do not want to burden the team (or themselves) with unnecessary details. Too little, people on the team are left to their own devices; too much, the PM may appear to be crying wolf. Experience will be a guide, and a common approach is a minimum of once a week connecting with each stakeholder or group. When in doubt, err on communicating more than necessary ensuring you have delivered your message.

    Keep Charts, Reports, Minutes, And Updates Simple… Complexity Breeds Confusion

    Project manager organizes information using project management tools for his stakeholders

    Everyone talks about MS Project®, Primavera®, or any myriad of tools to manage a project. When required, use them—simply. When not required, use the most effective tool possible, even Excel®.

    With the volume of emails everyone receives in a professional setting, the challenge is reading and digesting volumes of information every day. The more complex your message as a PM, the less likely the stakeholders will comprehend it. Simple charts, tables, and bullets summarize ideas and use subsequent details to reinforce the message.

    The more complicated PMs make the process, the more unmanageable the project may become. Even the most complex multi-year project can be simplified. Work to make your updates as clear as possible. Your audience will appreciate the brevity.

    “RAIL” Lists Can Be Your Best Ally…

    I learned to use a very simple “running item action list (RAIL)” for capturing information. Utilizing this tool in meetings keeps things very simple and easy to communicate. I have included a typical format above.

    Sequentially add action items to the list by date. Describe the task to complete briefly. Add due date and responsibility. Status percentage updates each time you discuss an item and only 100% when completely closed. Notes is an open field to capture information each time an item is discussed.

    By capturing these action items, PMs have a record of questions, concerns, and details discussed throughout the project. Sharing the file with the team during review meetings or as an attachment within messages keeps people informed. Open items are easily searched, and completed items are for reference.

    Each time the file is modified, the PM can save a copy by date/revision and maintain a working record of all discussions throughout a project. In the event of a discrepancy, cross-reference older files as an item of record.

    Communicating “Bad” News Or Problems

    Project manager communicates with a stakeholder

    Every project will face issues to address. In our current world, supply chain delays are prevalent in nearly every industry. Design setbacks and failed tests can delay a project unmeasurably. You will have problems—trust me!

    So what do you do? Keep it to yourself and deal with it? Limit the discussion to a small team? What and how do you tell the customer?

    In my experience, you first identify the problem and discuss it within the internal team. What went wrong? How did this happen? Identify some alternative solutions and measure feasibility.

    Before having 100% of the answers, I engage my customer. I explain the situation, and I define some of the alternatives listing potential solutions. I gauge the impact on the project timing. Then, I ask for their suggestions.

    Involve your customer in problems. Many customers appreciate the candor and the opportunity to participate in the process. They may not be happy; however, they have a stake in the solution. I have discovered my customers often have ideas we had not considered when presented with the issue.

    My biggest takeaway is NEVER hide anything. Yes, you will make people angry. Yes, stakeholders will be disappointed. Yes, you may get in trouble. Deceiving the team that “everything is all right” to find out later you were covering up only creates distrust and fear. Be honest and sincere, and you will see improved results when dealing with problems.

    Final Advice

    Happy business people during a project management meeting

    Project management is often a thankless, difficult job. Everyone has managed a project at one time—whether professionally or simply around the house. PM work is challenging.

    You can plan now on how to make the project run efficiently. You can prepare your communication methods defining them with the team. You can develop your templates to keep communication simple. You can agree with stakeholders on how problems are presented to the team.

    With some planning, PMs can create simple strategies to make the process flow well. Knowing how to manage the project’s intangibles will allow you to focus on where to add value.

    Finally… execute! The stakeholder is looking to you to succeed. Show them you can deliver, and make your project a success! Good luck, and know that I appreciate your efforts because I walk in your shoes.

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