Dan Brody Chief Information and Technology Officer CITO

Best Practices When Dealing With Critical Situations

Abstract

The success of a project depends on several variables such as the effectiveness of the project team, the involvement of the stakeholders, adherence to scope and budget, etc. However, even the best-run project can run into critical situations that can derail the project if not properly managed. While most project managers are great at managing projects, they often face challenges when confronted with dangerous situations. This paper examines best practices for effectively managing critical situations, with a focus on the IT industry. The best practices presented in this article have been developed, refined, and successfully utilized at a major software and services company.

Introduction

It is not uncommon for IT projects to run into roadblocks. Some of these situations may be severe enough to jeopardize the project timelines, possibly leading to increased cost, a reduction in project deliverables, and ultimately, a negative impact on customer satisfaction.

When critical issues impact a project, how are project managers expected to react? How should a project manager structure his or her communication during a crisis? What behaviors of a project manager can further deteriorate the situation?

During a crisis, all eyes are on the project manager. It is important that project managers have a good grasp of crisis management skills and understand the methodology to de-escalate a critical situation.

The authors manage a team of critical situation managers who step in to de-escalate critical situations, including projects where the go-live is endangered due to key issues. We have compiled a list of best practices based on our team’s collective experience in dealing with similar situations over several years.

In this article, we will discuss six best practices around communication, an approach toward problem solving, a categorization of issues, and behavior.

These guidelines are discussed below: 

  1. Look at the situation holistically

Most project managers are tempted to jump right in and try to resolve a crisis. While on the surface, this might seem like the fastest way to get the project back on track, there is a risk that the issues may manifest themselves again or that new issues may manifest themselves once the original issue is resolved. Depending on the situation, it might be prudent to take a step back and look at the issues end-to-end in a holistic manner. Let us take the example of an IT project where the project team identifies a critical performance issue with a business process step. Instead of jumping in and trying to optimize performance, it might be beneficial to work to understand if that business process step is necessary for what the customer is looking to achieve. Also, it is possible that there could be a more efficient way to achieve the client's requirement by understanding their condition holistically.

  1. Categorize the problems into top issues

Many project teams utilize software such as Microsoft Excel to manage points list. While there is nothing wrong in using software, it does not present an executive summary regarding the nature of the issues. Project stakeholders, especially those at the executive level, prefer to view top issues rather than individual problems. A top issue is a “negative statement.” An example of a top issue could be “poor performance of the solution” or “functional problems with the solution,” etc.

Each top issue could have several sub-issues that are being tracked. However, by rating progress against the top issue, stakeholders have better transparency into the nature of the issues, the risk involved, and the overall progress in working toward a resolution.

  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Often, we see situations where the team is actively engaged in resolving the critical issues. However, there is little to no communication to the stakeholders around the action plan and the steps made toward resolution. In the absence of communication, stakeholders will assume that no work is done even though that may not be factually correct.

We have seen several situations where decentralized communication leads to inaccurate and conflicting reporting—ultimately resulting in confusion and frustration. It is crucial to identify a point person who is in charge of all communication (ideally the project manager or a critical situation administrator) and to establish ground rules around communication.

It is paramount that all communications to stakeholders go through this person. Adopting this methodology ensures consistency, accountability, and a single point of contact if there are questions or concerns.

Also, it is also important to keep a few best practices in mind:

  • The update should be clear, concise, and to the point. Our research shows that stakeholders at the executive level tend to ignore long-winded status updates.
  • Tailor your update toward your audience. If your audience involves the CIO or the CEO, refrain from utilizing technical terms.
  • Avoid acronyms. If abbreviations are necessary, use the full form of the acronym at the first occurrence and then use the acronym in parentheses. For example, “Internet of Things (IoT).”
  • In today’s digital age, people often read emails on their mobile phones/tablets. Consequently, it is important to ensure your updates are device-friendly. You can guarantee your update is device-friendly by avoiding long sentences, using bullets, and using the appropriate indentation. When in doubt, send the update to yourself and view it on your mobile device to get a feel of what your audience will see.
  • Our experience with several customers shows that stakeholders prefer to see a “delta” update at the very top of the communication. These benefits recipients who read your updates on a daily basis and are only interested in knowing “what has changed” since the last update. Use colors, bold font, and italics if necessary, but refrain from using bright and light colors such as yellow and purple; stick to neutral colors like black, blue, and gray.
  1. State the facts

It is important always to stick to the facts and take emotions and personal opinions out of the equation. Your role is similar to that of a news reporter—where you report on the situation without taking sides. While it is possible that you may have an opinion on the situation, you should refrain from expressing it unless someone explicitly asks for it.

Our experience shows that when project managers communicate a problem to the stakeholders in a factual manner, it builds credibility and demonstrates their commitment to providing fair and accurate updates.

  1. Do not get defensive

When critical issues endanger a project, emotions could run high. If a stakeholder gets upset, allow him/her for venting. Do not try to be defensive, as it will not help diffuse the situation. Once the person has had a chance to vent, it is much easier to convey your thoughts in a calm and professional manner.

We have seen that customers are appreciative when the project manager is honest and upfront about the situation, no matter how bad the news is. If you have to provide bad news to a customer, invest some time in trying to identify possible solutions to circumvent the issue and use this information to build an action plan around the problem.

When project managers go the extra mile to provide an action plan with owners and timelines at the time of communicating a problem, it provides stakeholders with a sense of comfort in knowing that although there is a problem, it is being managed properly.

Let’s demonstrate this with an example. You are the project manager implementing ERP software for a customer. Four weeks before go-live, your team discovers a severe performance issue which is a showstopper to the upcoming go-live.

You have three ways to approach this scenario, as outlined in Table 1:

Scenario Approach Possible Outcome Our Recommendation
 1 Do not communicate bad news to avoid aggravating the customer. Have the team work on resolving this issue behind the scenes. The customer may find out about the problem eventually and will be upset that this was not brought to their attention. The project team’s credibility could be impacted. We do not recommend this approach.
 2 Communicate the problem to the customer as soon as you discover it. The customer will be upset at the beginning, but will then demand an action plan to circumvent the issue. We recommend this only if developing an action plan takes a time or requires collaboration with the customer.
 3 Identify an action plan with owners and timelines. Provide the customer with the action plan to correct the issue. If you have multiple approaches that can be utilized, present these options to the customer, along with the pros and cons of each approach so that a decision on the approach can be made jointly with the customer. The customer will be appreciative of the project team’s integrity and commitment toward making the project successful despite the obstacle. This approach is almost always successful.

Table 1: Possible scenarios when you’re faced with a critical situation.

  1. Utilize graphs when possible

There is an old saying—a picture is worth a thousand words. This is particularly the case when dealing with situations where there is a need to display large amounts of quantitative data, such as numbers, in an easy-to-consume format.

Our experience in dealing with hundreds of such situations have led to the following best practices:

When dealing with an escalated situation where the top issue involves a performance issue, it is best to display performance trends over the course of multiple iterations, as shown in Figure 1.

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For top issues affecting the performance of the solution, we recommend drawing a horizontal line depicting the customer’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Allowing the audience to infer the deviation from the KPIs, as well as gauge progress toward meeting the end goal. There could be multiple KPIs on a particular project. However, for this article, the authors chose to utilize the “Performance of a Sales Order Creation” step as the only KPI.

It is also equally important to display the high-level recommendations corresponding to each iteration, as outlined in Table 2:

 Iteration  Recommendations Applied
 Iteration 1  Implemented parameter recommendations
 Iteration 2  Optimized code
 Iteration 3  Clean up redundant data

Table 2: Legend outlining high-level recommendations for each iteration.

Although graphs allow the audience to see large amounts of information in a single figure, it is equally important to identify what you, as the author, infer from the graph.

Let’s take the graph in Figure 2 as an example:

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Figure 2: Displaying performance trends over time.

The reader might be left to infer that performance deteriorated in iteration #3 because the recommendations did not work.

However, in this particular example, iteration #3 was performed with a significant increase in the number of concurrent users, which explains why performance deteriorated. If this is not explicitly highlighted in the graph, the audience will make incorrect assumptions.

Figure 3 illustrates an example of how the graph should be modified to prevent a reader from making false assumptions from the data presented:

2016-06-02_14-50-30

Conclusion

In conclusion, crisis management is a crucial skill that project managers are expected to have. During a crisis, the stakeholders and project sponsor look to the project manager to remedy the situation. The recommendations presented in this paper are the culmination of years of experience in de-escalating critical situations for a large software and services company. The authors hope that project managers implementing IT projects benefit from the recommendations presented in this paper and disseminate this knowledge to their team members.

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