5 Steps to Dealing With Project Disaster

When I went into the office on Tuesday there was a hush amongst the project team. The atmosphere seemed slightly unreal. Then one of my team members cleared his throat and said, “We need to have a quick chat about something.”

Overnight, the team had uncovered a major problem on our project and they thought that the project was over. They couldn’t see a way around it – but there’s nearly always a way out of a problem if you use a methodical approach to handle project disasters. Here’s a simple 5 step method that you can use (and we do too) to deal with major issues.

Step #1: What’s The Problem?

5 Steps to Dealing With Project Disaster

5 Steps to Dealing With Project Disaster

The first thing to get clear is what exactly has happened. Call your team members together and get to the bottom of the issue. How did this problem occur? Who noticed it? What did they do about it then? And what makes them think that it’s a major project disaster?

As well as asking some questions to establish the facts, this is also the time to get on top of the administration side of dealing with disaster. Log the problem in your issue tracking software, so that you have a comprehensive record of when it was raised, who identified it and what exactly this problem involves.

Step #2: What’s The Impact?

OK, now you know exactly what the problem is. It’s time to work out what impact it will have on the project. Assuming that your team thinks it’s a project disaster, we can safely say that it will have some impact! Is it financial, in that it will push you over your budget? Is it a problem with quality – have you failed to meet the quality criteria set by the customer? Is it going to affect the resources on your project, maybe the people or the equipment that you need?

Get your core team members and subject matter experts together and brainstorm all the possible impacts that this disaster could have. Try to think of some positive ones as well! For example, losing a key resource may mean that you have to buy in external support from a third party contractor, but equally, that could mean you get an even more skilled person who can do the job in half the time. This is a good way to try to raise the morale of the team when it is probably at an all-time low, even if you don’t get any of those positive benefits after all.

Step #3: What Shall We Do?

Now you know what has happened and how it will affect your project, so the third step is to plan what to do about it. Again, this is best done in a group, and you’ll probably use the same meeting as the brainstorming session as all the relevant people will be there (and people love to jump into finding solutions, so you won’t be able to stop them!).

Aim to come up with a comprehensive action plan, or at least some recommendations for your project sponsor to assess and approve. There are likely to be several ways to fix the issue, everything from closing down the project to throwing money at the problem to reducing scope. Think outside the box as much as you can and encourage the team to do the same. After all, it could be a really wacky idea that saves the project, so get creative!

Step #4: Doing The Work

Disasters – if they really are disasters – tend to require input from your project sponsor. If the problem is that significant you won’t be able to make the decision on what to do next by yourself, so get your sponsor to review your recommendations and approve the course of action that is best for the project. Once you have got this go ahead you can start the work to fix the problem.

Go through your action plan and allocate work to the team members. You’ll also want to allocate overall responsibility to someone. Normally, you’ll use your issue log to record who is the issue owner and, as project manager, that won’t be you. But for a serious problem like a project disaster, it is best if you keep overall responsibility for carrying out the action plan and owning the issue.

Use your tracking software to ensure that the action plan activities are carried out on time and make sure that if you need to update any other project documentation like the schedule or plan, that you do this too.

Step #5: Reviewing The Work

Did you fix it? Did you bring the project back under control and avert the crisis? Chances are that you did, but your project might look very different now. Perhaps you have a new major supplier, or approval to spend more money. Perhaps you outsourced a chunk of work or took it back in the house again.

When you have completed the action plan and resolved the problem, you should spend some time reviewing what happened and what you did. These are important lessons that could help you and other project managers in the future. Look for lessons that you can implement on other projects, things that you could do differently next time. In some cases, there might not be anything that you could do differently because disasters tend to be one-off problems that you couldn’t see coming. But there might be some useful lessons around ensuring everyone knows what is going on, involving key experts and so on that would be useful to record.

While you might not need to use this disaster management action plan right now, it could be useful to have in your project files for if and when a big problem hits your project. It is always best to be prepared and to have a plan for what you will do if something disastrous occurs. Even if you never need to use your emergency action plan, you’ll have extra confidence knowing that you have a process to deal with project issues. Fingers crossed you never need to use it!

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