“A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.” – English proverb

Missed deadlines. Project over budget. Irate, disappointed stakeholders. Team members home sick at “crunch time.” Sweating yet? If you’re a project manager, these issues are probably enough to strike fear in your heart. Murphy ’s Law suggests “what can go wrong, will go wrong,” and no one knows that better than a seasoned project manager.

Perhaps before you became a project manager, you experienced a project crisis or were witness to your manager silently (or not so silently) freaking out. Maybe you even had to work a few extra hours to pull a project out of crisis mode. Now that you’re the one in charge, you’re the person everyone looks to for solutions in these crisis moments.

Seasoned project managers will have been through their fair share of crises, and hopefully, have adopted some practices to handle the hardships and unexpected issues that come their way. If you’re a newbie to project management or have just had a golden horseshoe in your back pocket up to now, here are a few tips on how to turn the ship around before it sinks.

 

Pay attention to warning signs

Before disaster strikes, there are usually some warning signs along the way. Your job as the project manager is to keep your ears and eyes open to detect these signs, and then take immediate preventative action in order to keep things from going off the rails. Be aware of complaints that come from your staff and stakeholders, however minor they may seem at first.

For example, when you have a constrained budget and are stretching every dollar to get the most out it, you must pay close attention to “budget creep,” keep on top of monitoring your costs and cost estimates, and look daily to find any discrepancies between the actual cost and your weekly budget, so that you don’t go over.

When you do notice warning signs, develop a plan of preventative action to minimize the risk of a full-blown crisis situation, or at least mitigate the risks these issues have on the project. If you have a risk management and/or contingency plan, these steps should already be outlined.

 

Contain the crisis

Let’s say you’ve missed the warning signs, or — gasp! — there weren’t any, and now you and your project are in crisis mode. What now?

First, focus on information gathering. Get as much information you can about the cause of the crisis, as well as the ramifications. What/who caused this impact? And, for how long? Identify the root cause.

Next, act quickly and decisively. Once you’ve identified the cause of the crisis and stopped it from spreading or getting further out of hand, it’s time to get your team and project back on track. Communicate face-to-face, if you can. This is when team members are going to be looking to you, so pull your hair out in private, if you must, but maintain a sense of calm in group meetings. Don’t single anyone out who made an error. Instead, hold a team meeting to discuss ways to prevent this crisis from happening again. Giving everyone the opportunity to chime in about what happened, without dwelling on it for too long, will help to move things forward.

 

Be realistic and optimistic

It’s easy to get bogged down in negativity or be pessimistic during a crisis. When this happens, you and your team members may spend more time talking about the crisis itself rather than focusing on the solution(s). Don’t get caught in a downward spiral of negativity. Instead, communicate a sensible assessment of the situation to your team. You don’t have to sugar coat anything, but be realistic and optimistic when identifying the way forward. Get your whole team involved in the solution. Remember, life isn’t perfect, and your project can’t be either. Mistakes happen. It’s important to use them as teaching moments — for yourself and your team.

 

Make communication a priority

When a crisis occurs, the people in your organization will look to you, not only for your leadership in how to solve things, but for an explanation of what happened. Be honest and communicate as clearly as you can, sharing facts and providing hope that the situation is okay (or going to be okay) due to the actions that are being taken.

As the project manager, it’s your job to clear up any ambiguities, answer questions and concerns, and do it all with a steady, calm presence. Your non-verbal body language will be just as important as the words you’re saying in a time of crisis, so be mindful of how you carry yourself. Provide hope if you can, and inspire your team to want to do better. If you have one, consult your communications plan when crisis strikes.

 

Teamwork: encourage leadership in others

When a crisis situation derails your project, you want to make sure it gets back on track as soon as possible. And, you can’t do that alone! Your team members will be your most important resources during this time.

Don’t just look to the management level during this time, either.  Break down the silos and respect the knowledge of all of your team members, no matter what their position is. If you tell people they need to simply focus on their own tasks at hand, you’ve missed the mark. Sometimes the best solutions come from those you least expect. Brainstorm with everyone to discuss solutions, alternatives, and preventative measures for future issues.

 

Find the silver lining

Crisis averted? Phew! You’ve weathered the storm, and you can breathe a sigh of relief, but there’s still work to do. Now’s the time to catalogue not only what caused the crisis and how it began, but which steps were effective in solving it. Your team members may find some relief in discussing the process and reflecting on their roles and the actions they took in the thick of it, too. Document everything. Use your crisis experience to avoid something similar in the future. See it for what it is: an opportunity for growth and learning for you and your team. Closure is the final aspect of any crisis, and should never be overlooked for the sake of ease or time.

 

Conclusion

After you’ve been through a few crises as a project manager, you’ll not only do a better job of monitoring and preventing them, but the next time one rears its ugly head, you’ll know better how to handle it. Experience will give you the tools to deal with whatever comes your way, and the wisdom gleaned from every crisis you navigate will prepare you to take care on future issues that crop up unexpectedly.

You’ll never be happy to face a crisis, but find some comfort in knowing it’s offering you two things: knowledge and experience.