Friday, March 15, 2013

So things went wrong. What do you do?

From time to time things go wrong. This is not necessary a bad thing but it sometimes happens and it happens more often in projects. What do you do when things go wrong? What should you do? And what shouldn't you do? This article aims to walk you through this and hopefully ease things the next time your project goes sour...

The dos and don'ts

I wrote about this same topic a while back on a guest post for Heart, Brains, and Courage - Things are out of control, what do I do?. In that guest post I advocated the need for 3 things: Why, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and common sense. This article builds on that to provide the dos and don'ts, approaching things a bit differently this time and make it a bit more practical. So here we go, starting with the dos...

Do be honest

Is this really necessary to be here? Isn't this something already covered by codes of conduct and alike that most Project Managers are obliged to comply? The truth is that even honesty is something present in your mind, it's all too easy to find excuses when you are involved, even unwillingly. So taking a step back and looking at things in a different angle can help you to keep the necessary transparency and objectiveness dealing with stuff that simply went wrong.
For starters, it helps on your awareness to the problem. Before dealing with a problem you must know that you have a problem, right?

Do find a solution

Why did this happen is probably a good way to start understanding the problem at hand. But what you need to do is to make things better: How can you recover? Can you go around it? Maybe a supplier is late delivering something. Getting the compensation written in contract is no good for your project because it doesn't solve your problem - the project will be late anyhow. But maybe you can rearrange your plan and push the use of that supply latter in time. Or maybe you can buy something that wasn't custom made for your project but that you can put it to work with a few tweaks.
Don't forget that your main concern is finding a solution. In this case of a supplier running late, your main concern is not to get the contractual compensation, right? That is necessary, yes, but it doesn't do any good to your project. What you need is to keep the costs and schedule in the plan even if the supplier is late.

Do prevent from happening again

How could you have prevented it from happening? Was it lack of risk analysis or identification? Notice that this is not the same as finding a solution for the problem, this is about the root cause of the problem. Instead of asking why once and you're done, you'll probably have to ask why a few times (some advocate that 4 why's take you to the root cause of any problem), just like 4 year old's do. So why is the supplier late? It could be that your order was late. Why? Because the internal approval took too long. Why? Because it has many approval levels. Well, if this is the case you can prevent this from happening again by starting the approval process sooner. This doesn't solve your problem at hand, but it will prevent the same problem from occurring again. See the difference?

Don't blame

Just the other day I was at a presentation by a top manager of this well known international company when things go wrong. The first thing this guy did was saying "This is not my fault, it never happened on my laptop". It was a bad start but then he build on that and added "It's John Doe's laptop" (where John Doe was the guy announcing the presenters and "laptop" can easily be replaced by "fault")

Don't complicate

Instead of building a system to provide artificial gravity in space so you can use a pen to write when there's no gravity, please take a pencil. Easy, isn't it?
Yet people complicate things in an almost natural fashion... And it probably happened to you. It's really easy for you to miss obvious when you're entangle deeply inside a problem.

What if the problem is emotional?

Emotional problems (domestic problems, team members that just don't get along, personal financial problems, health problems, and such) are a different kind of problem. The main differences are that:

  • the people affected by the problem lack the necessary objectiveness, and
  • you feel the problem
In the previous scenario of a supplier who is late on a delivery, you don't really feel the problem do you? You just have the fact that the supplier should have delivered last week and he is 5 days late.

In such cases of emotional problems a little comfort is all that you need - or at least a good start. I remember this story this friend of mine told to an audience when she was talking about empathy. Her toddler always got ice cream when he did something good (I can't remember what it was but you can imagine something to fill in this blank). Now one day he was so excited about something (again, please fill in the blank) that he forgot about the ice cream. He only remembered it too late when he was going to bed. As soon as he started complaining, his mother just said "Oh you poor thing... do you want your pacifier?" and hugged him. He just got his pacifier and went on to bed. No crying or screaming, because he felt understood.
Notice how this goes against what I said earlier in "Find a solution". Dealing with emotional problems is way different mainly because a solution is not what you need (in fact, there is no solution in many cases). What you want is to somehow "share the burden". Some comfort or understanding can be enough for that.

When things go really, really wrong

This article was triggered by a recent post on Psych Central - What to say when there's nothing to say . In a nutshell, offer comfort. Don't say you understand when you don't. Don't compare to what happened to you in the exact same situation because it's just no good. Just offer the comfort you can (in the case described in the article it was a french toast - funny enough, not radically different from ice cream). And if you have nothing to say, don't say nothing.

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