When things go wrong

Shift happens! Things go wrong on projects from time to time and you have only two choices: sort it out or succumb.

Face Facts

There are nearly always warning signs, so why is it that so many of us are taken completely by surprise when a crisis hits? The reasons are usually one of the following:

  1. Distraction
    You have been unable to notice the warning signs because you have been distracted by other things.
  2. Perception
    You saw the signs, but you didn’t recognise them for what they were – you failed to perceive that they were signs at all.
  3. Interpretation
    You saw and recognised the signs, but you read them wrong and did not understand what they could have told you.
  4. Complacency
    You understood what could happen but did nothing about it, believing that your plans would mean it would not truly be what you knew, deep down, it would.
  5. Fear
    You knew what was going to happen, but you buried your head in the sand and hoped you could rtide it out, because you were afraid to admit to you client, your sponsor, your team and even yourself, what was coming your way.
  6. Bravado
    You read the signs but chose to ignore them, believing that you were stronger than the forces arrayed against you. This is not the same as…
  7. Misjudgement
    You read the signs correctly but did not correctly evaluate the risk. This is perhaps the only reasonable ‘excuse’ for getting caught out.

The secret is to carve out time each week to reflect quietly on what is happening. Maybe do this alone, or perhaps with trusted colleagues who can add additional eyes, ears and interpretations to the mix. Another strategy is to appoint a particularly astute colleague as ‘consigliere’ to be your forward thinker.

Whatever happens, as soon as you spot something on the horizon, face up to it and deal with it.

Call a ‘war council’

However talented you are at averting and dealing with crises, you will need help, support and creative thinking. Gather a team to deal with it, allowing others to get on with their jobs.

When the crisis hits, you are going to be under a lot of pressure, so you will need someone to help you handle it. Consider one of these options:

  • A mentor / coach, to help you think through options and decisions robustly
  • A consigliere / advisor to contribute different ideas and perspectives to your thought processes
  • A second-in-command to take the weight on secondary issues and when you find you need a short break
  • A counsellor / listener who will lend a supportive ear when you need to let off steam and share your problems with someone

Take care of yourself

I will return to this in detail next week, but when you are under most stress, you most need to carve out time to take care of yourself. Short breaks, adequate sleep, good food and occasional distractions are vital to maintaining your physical and emotional resilience.

Last time I was on a plane, I recall the advice: ‘put on your own face mask before helping the person next to you.’ If you don’t take care of yourself, you may not be in a fit state to take care of your project or your team.


Don’t be rushed into silly decisions. Make time to think through decisions and make plans. What kind of Government would be proud of not having a Plan B? Any half decent project manager would have a Plan B and a Plan C for any major crisis situation, along with clear review points to evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing.

But do hold your nerve… Just because a recovery plan does not work instantly, it doesn’t mean it won’t work. Change upon change is chaos, so operate one plan at a time and know what criteria you will use to assess each one.

Keep talking

In times of crisis, your team, your client and your stakeholders need to know what is going on, what you are doing about it, and what part they can play.

Honesty is not the best policy…

it is the only policy.

Nothing corrodes morale like gossip and rumours, but if you don’t provide information, these are exactly what will fill the vacuum. Without the feeling that you are in control, people will not have trust in your leadership.

Despite the myth…

Wikipedia puts an end to the convenient myth that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is made up of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.

The Chinese word for “crisis” (simplified Chinese: 危机; traditional Chinese: 危機; pinyin: wēijī; Wade–Giles: wei-chi) is frequently invoked in Western motivational speaking because the word is composed of two sino-characters that can represent “danger” and “opportunity”. However this analysis is fallacious because the character has other meanings besides “opportunity.”

… As in wēijī, this translates roughly as “crucial/critical point” not “opportunity”.

Wikipedia, Chinese word for “crisis”, 3 October 2013

But what a great myth it was – because there frequently are opportunities at times of crisis. Don’t allow yourself to get so focused on swimming for the raft that you fail to notice the luxury yacht.

Risk Happens! by Mike Clayton


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