Thursday, July 7, 2011

Managing Projects Through Uncertainty

These are definitely uncertain times. The economy is still tanked in the US. In some US cities one out of every seven house sit empty, real unemployment rates are running as high nearly 30% (After adjustments), and there are approximately five unemployed applicants for every one open job. Uncertainty and chaos at its best.

So it should be of no surprise when we experience uncertainty in our projects and with our project customers. After all, the very same uncertainties I've already mentioned are affecting our companies, our client companies, and nearly every single financial decision being made. How can anything be stable? How can we be certain that our project won't be halted or completely shut down tomorrow? How can we be certain that our project management jobs will be relevant and needed next week? How can we know for sure that our project teams that our customers are counting on won't be disassembled due to layoffs or needs on more important projects next month right in the middle of critical tasks? The answer is we can't. We can never be certain. Even in good times we can't be certain of these things as managing projects is really all about managing change, isn't it? I've had most or all of these things happen to my projects and teams in good times and bad due to forces and conditions that are often beyond my control or influence.

We don't take on the role of project manager because it feels safe. Project managers generally know things can change or happen during the course of any engagement that can greatly affect the outcome if we aren't prepared for it. It's called risk planning and risk management. We just have to be aware during very uncertain times that there are additional risks that may need to be considered and planned for.

So, do we really do things differently when we're managing in uncertain times? And by uncertain times I mean with our jobs, our company's status, our client's stability, or our projects financial or technical viability. Do we do things differently? In my opinion, yes, at least a little.

When I'm managing a project during what I would consider unstable or uncertain times or circumstances here's what I focus on:

Solid documentation

Document, document, document. It's a tedious task unless it's for deliverables that are already built into the contract and we're getting paid for them. But during uncertain project times it becomes even more critical. The more documentation that's available, the easier you can onboard new team members if your project team is unstable. And, more documentation means you have yourself well covered if customer questions arise concerning your team's performance on the project.

Thorough risk management

We all perform issue management - it's hard not too when issues arise. But really performing risk management and doing it right is something we often overlook or gloss over. Not only is risk management and planning critical, it's even more so when times are uncertain. Different things need to be planned for such as work stoppages, technology solution changes, or sudden project resource losses.

Effective communication

Communication is job #1 for the project manager and it's never more evident than when you're dealing with unstable project situations. It's extremely important to keep your project team and the customer well informed of project status, project schedule, and all issues at all times - especially when your project is running through turbulent waters.

Customer satisfaction

There's not really any one thing you can do in terms of customer satisfaction. There's not one thing you can specifically do to guarantee it. But rather it's a cumulative process of maintaining best practices and good communication and checking in frequently with the customer to make sure that their needs are being met. Don't assume your customer is happy...ask them.

Frequent upward reporting within the organization

Finally, keep your senior management well informed on your project. Especially if the uncertainty lies within your own organization. The loudest project manager is usually not the one who gets the ax first. It's the quiet one because they seem more expendable even though they may be the ones who are just the best at taking the ball and running with it. So if you're more independent and good at taking off with a project with little to no senior direction, that's great. But if your company is laying people off, start making some noise. Make sure your senior leadership knows who you are, who your project team members are, and what's happening on your project.


I realize that these are things we should - and hopefully do - focus on anyway during our projects. But during uncertain times they are definitely key processes that we can't afford to skip or cut back on. If anything, they need increased attention and focus and that's where I generally put in some extra effort. I can't say it's always what keeps things afloat in uncertain project times, but I can guarantee that it has never hurt the project.

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