Dealing with project panic

Senior Project Manager Romi Sebastian shares a consultant’s view on how to overcome project fear and do things better

After coming out of a stressful progress meeting recently for a critical project, I started to reflect on how the different stages of project execution have provoked a number of panicky and chilling experiences in my 16 years of working life. In fact, it almost became habitual to have a level of anxiety before starting a new project/phase – and then enjoying the feeling of calm when the project would come to a close, saying to myself: “well that wasn’t too bad after all.”

So what I have I learned from all this? Here are some of the mantras that I have adopted from my experience – and the panic scenarios that prompted them.

Usual suspects: the project characters

These are the characters that can all too easily panic when there are project budget overruns or missed deadlines. Typically, within the higher ranks (the higher up they are, the more the panic and anxiety they can create among subordinates) they do not like hearing any bad news, especially without any prior warnings. To keep the panic mode under control, I have learned:

  • It’s best to forewarn them of any potential risks
  • Communicate with them on a regular basis with honest project updates, whether good or bad
  • Set aside the first hour of every day for these client updates
  • For long term success, one should recognise one’s limitations and be transparent in your reporting – for example, if the project is falling behind, say so, explain why, and list exactly the resources you will need to get it back on track (more on this below)

The project programme fallacy

There is a misconception that if the project team isn’t hitting every milestone on the dates specified, the project is obviously a failure. My take from my years of work is that all stakeholders need to be made aware that the initial project milestones are created weeks/months ahead of time, and not all requirements can be known when a project is launched – the project may still produce good results. Project managers must be clear and transparent when managing stakeholder expectations and explain to stakeholders that a ‘project plan’ is merely a ‘projection’ of what you expect to happen in the future.

Following an outdated project plan will merely result in failure. Project managers should communicate to stakeholders what they can expect regarding imminent milestones. As soon as a milestone seems to be at risk, this fact must be communicated immediately. Explain the reasons and communicate any new plans based on updated project priorities. One shouldn’t ‘fear’ baseline project programmes – but rather, have control and work proactively.

The project risks – sudden scares and using an adaptive approach

As experience builds, one will realise that things will sometimes go wrong; things can and will ‘come out of nowhere’ and create sudden scares. Of course, the trick is trying to ascertain when this is most likely to  happen: what are the ‘hotspots’ and what form are they most likely to take?

Regardless, there will always be some project issues that arise without any warning (especially when everything else seems to going smoothly). In my experience, one needs to keep a record of these as and when they occur, because the reality is that while they may appear random, they are actually anything but – and the next time these crop up, you’ll know exactly how to target, mitigate and resolve them. Prioritising the resolution of sudden risks (impact wise) also aids in the overall mitigation, and lessens panic when multiple risks arise within a short span of time.

The ability to use the best mix of planning and structured thinking, while also staying flexible and agile, is the key. Too much planning without being agile, and it’s all too easy to fail to adapt when the situation/risk changes.

Having a back-up plan is good, but be open to adapting. The crux is to adopt a hybrid approach – where the focus is on project value and positive outcomes, and less priority on rigid tools, organisational processes or literal outputs. At times, the strangest and or simplest tool/idea will help kill/mitigate a risk, and this comes only when you can keep a cool, open mind.

Plus, while it can be very satisfying to resolve a prickly project issue, we need to remain vigilant to the possibility that it could recur. If its been previously identified as a risk, you’ll now have quantitative data regarding its impact, which you can use to be better prepared in the future.

Project decision making – the ‘stop and reflect’ method

The skill to pause and reflect before making a decision is important in times of panic. Any decision-making must be reviewed, based on one’s current mindset/mood. It’s important to query if you (or your line manager) would reach the same decision on a different day, i.e., if you or the manager were in a different frame of mind.

It’s a truism that if you are stressed, upset, exhausted or angry, it is clearly best to avoid making big decisions. Things regularly go wrong when project managers are habitually over-stressed, tired and anxious. An effective approach is prioritising self-care and taking effective short breaks for regular reflection and review.

Having a positive mentality and a well-rested, calm demeanor is a simple, yet often underrated component of good decision making, especially in panicky situations.

The ‘error free’ project scenario

We shouldn’t expect project matters to be right or go well every time. We all make poor decisions and assumptions from time to time. What’s most important is to continually reflect on the outcomes of one’s decisions and how one would approach the situation differently in the future. Identify the prejudice one may have had and which part of the decision-making process could be improved, if any.

In an imperfect, ever-changing world of project construction, continual reflection, transparency and owning/learning from your mistakes will make you a more effective decision-maker and well-respected project manager/leader.

The final assault

Believe it or not, there is no ideal or perfect project scenario, whether in planning or execution. One thing or another will keep cropping up, no matter how many times you attempt to finish it.

For me, it is typically the last 10% of a project that takes a lot longer – and which will therefore cost a lot more – pro rata – than the actual 10% you will have budgeted for. Being fully aware that the final 10% of the project often takes more time (about 20% of time and effort) helps ensure there are no unwanted surprises, just as you thought the end was in sight…

This is a very important aspect that project managers/schedulers should try to remember when calculating earned value throughout the project. A lesson here is that it’s extremely useful to set checking ‘milestones’ whereby you can re-align any earned value estimations for project deliverables.

As time passes and we gain experience (not just from the sheer volume of what we go through, but from what we actually learned from it), we’ll be better-equipped to avoid panic and acquire a level of maturity – whereby instead of feeling fear, we can govern and control our project scenarios with a cool head, shrewdness and optimism.

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