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The Deep End - Surviving Difficult Projects

The Deep End - Surviving Difficult Projects

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Published by Steve Folan
What should Project Managers consider when they are thrown in the deep end. Its too late for methodology so you need to look beyond template thinking and give yourself the best chance possible.
What should Project Managers consider when they are thrown in the deep end. Its too late for methodology so you need to look beyond template thinking and give yourself the best chance possible.

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Published by: Steve Folan on Sep 04, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Creating and Surviving Difficult Projects
Project Management is as demanding as ever but now work and life are blended into a stressfulsoup of endless demands. In many instances there’s no such thing as being out of the office. It’swith you constantly, in your smartphone, ready to demand attention. Then there’s office behaviour;people racing to be the first to reply and other types who wake up in the early hours, firing off memos to appear hyper-engaged. Estimates from the Labour Force Survey in 2011 say that the mainwork activities attributed by respondents as causing their work-related stress, or making it worse,was work pressure, lack of managerial support and work-related violence and bullying. On average,each person suffering from this condition took 24 days off work. We need to consider copingstrategies and prevention to give us a better chance of dealing with, and surviving, it.So what do we need to consider before, during and after a project to give ourselves, the team, theclient and the project the best chance of success and to allow the prospect of future successes?
Project Mobilisation
You are asked to take over a project at short notice. In aperfect world someone would look for the PM with thebest ‘fit’ to the client, the challenge and the context. Inthe real world you need to get going quickly and showresults. There are budget issues, it is behind schedule andthe existing team would rather be somewhere else. Thework may last for 3 months or 3 years and the underlyingissues are not well defined and everybody is indulging inblamestorming.On the other hand, as Rahm Emmanuel, White HouseChief of Staff to Barack Obama said. “You never let aserious crisis go to waste… it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
The Project Trajectory
The first step should be to establish your control over the project. With limited time a project brief can be used to confirm the approach and the objectives. Combine it with a mind mapping tool allowseverything to be visualised and confirmed. Confidence needs to be established that a more detailedplan can be produced, when needed, but with an outline schedule, a budget estimate and anavailable workforce you can start. There is not much time to waste so avoid all day stakeholder
meetings unless you come up with a radical change that requires complete re-engagement with theclient.1.
Create a shared perspective by speaking to as manypeople as you can. Collect the best ideas and play themback.2.
Create a ‘good enough’ approach with review pointswhere you can re-affirm the levels of commitment fromthe client and the management.3.
Review the approach with the team and then the clientto get their buy in.4.
Start as soon as you can and as small as you can. Makemistakes as early as possible. If you start slowly you willmake the same mistakes but in a more considered andthoughtful manner.
Mobilisation and Establishing Good Performance
Once the project is underway you need to develop relationships quickly and test the depth of trustregularly. Getting things done goes faster with trust. Expect everyone to meet your expectations andthen deal with failure or disappointment later on. Do not create a risk avoidance culture thatprevents people from using their initiative and encourages blame. Lack of trust indicates potentialfailure for the project as too much effort will be diverted from doing things to checking things. Theremay come a point when you need to call a halt in order to regroup or re-start the project. Belowthere are some indicators of trusted and non-trusted behaviour that will tell you if that point hasbeen reached.
Stakeholder Trusted Behaviour Not Trusted Behaviour
SeniorManagementEncourage escalationInformal and regular dialogueOffer assistancePre-meeting meetingsMicro-ManagementAccountManagementInvolve PM in client meetingsDiscuss future opportunitiesInformal and regular dialogueRepeat client criticism and issuesShort termism in decision makingTeam Daily catch up meetingsOpen discussion for issuesShared responsibilityProblem solving mentalityMeetings only arranged to discuss issues orprogressResponsible for own workReactive, passive or disengaged mentalityClient Informal updates and escalationsas required.Daily review of activitiesIgnoring advice
Weekly highlight report Copying management on emailsSelf Acknowledgment of issuesOpenness to discuss with teamConfident to escalateImprovising to accelerate projectIdentifying opportunities.Providing scheduled updates on issuesTaking time to customise the messagesTrying to fix everything yourself Overreacting to issuesCommand and control approach with team
Maintaining Performance and Protecting Yourself 
Victor Frankl observed that the people whosurvived the longest in a difficult situation werethose who retained a sense of control over theirenvironment, not necessarily the strongest. Toremain in control you need to stay alert, engagedand resilient. The best PMs are outward focussed.They will consider the client, the team and theproject but often they will neglect themselves.Over time the demands of work can affect yourhealth and performance. Loss of control can begradual until you are overwhelmed. Some warning signs are:
Finding life a struggle;
Noting that your energy levels are much lower and that you have none left at the end of theday for your family and friends;
Becoming more withdrawn - not wanting to see people;
Sleep disturbance;
Feeling more anxious, agitated and apprehensive;
Not being able to concentrate well; and
Concerns being raised by your inner circleBelow are some ideas to consider during the day-to-day hassles of running the project that can keepyou on top of your game and allow you to exert as much control over the situation as possible.
Attribute Suggestions
Alert Travel to work by different routes to freshen your outlookRead articles that have nothing directly to do with the project. You may get inspired.Make sure that the team members are involved in planning, issues and reviewsPlan to refresh some member of the team after 3 months.Team members may have problems. Consider any changes in performance or behaviour.Take 5 minutes at the start of the day to visualise the key outcomes you wantTake 5 minutes at the end of the day to compare what happenedEngaged Avoid unnecessary long hours. It is not big and it is not clever. Short bursts of stress aregood for you. Constant stress will harm you.Talk regularly with the account managers and share progress and escalate issues.Review your approach if there is a change in personnel or the context of the projectWhat is your default style under stress? Are you impelled to act, talk or do nothing? Try

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