10 tips in a project crisis

Guest contribution by | 27.05.2021 | Project management |

It happens again and again that projects get into difficulties. An imbalance quickly turns into a serious project crisis. What do you do in such a situation? Do you use the opportunities that arise from the crisis?

My personal experience is that the moment a project crisis is concretely named, the legitimisation for change takes place. A legitimisation to initiate special measures and to change fundamental things. In a positive sense, the project crisis creates the basis for a new start.

In the following, I would like to give you my 10 tips for dealing with project crises. Before that, I would like to briefly describe how you can recognise a project crisis.

Characteristics of a project crisis

We recognise the following as the main characteristics of a project crisis:

  • an uncontrollable problem – otherwise the problem-solving measures would have taken effect!
  • a risk that has materialised – at least I hope that the crisis has shown itself beforehand in its risk assessment.
  • a situation that endangers the entire success of the project and possibly even the entire company – consequently we speak of an existential threat.

We must clearly distinguish the risk as a possible threat and the problem as a threat that has occurred from the project crisis, because the effects in a crisis are always existential, uncontrollable and beyond the usual / known methods of resolution.

Let’s look at what other characteristics we find for the project crisis:

  • It is always accompanied by a loss of control!
  • There is a high degree of complexity!
  • The pressure to make decisions is enormous!
  • And the known methods and measures no longer work!

I am sure that if you are in a project crisis, you know this and the definition of the term does not matter to you at such a moment. So let’s swiftly take a look at my 10 tips.

Tip #1: Accept the crisis

Accept that you are in a crisis with your project.

Stating this fact in the project management and steering board is essential: “The project is in crisis!”

Admitting that you are in a crisis situation, that you do not yet recognise the new path and that you currently have no control, is a first, very important step and affects all stakeholders of the project in the following communication.

Tip #2: Stop the project and be brave

In practice, the effect of “just carrying on” can often be observed. Although it has long been clear to those involved that they are in the middle of a project crisis, they continue to work as usual, as if everything were as usual. Here it is important to carry out a conscious STOP.

This tip generally helps in all project phases and perhaps you know this: everyone knows that if we continue to work like this, things will go wrong or the solution will never be practical! What is needed here is the courage to clearly state exactly that to the client and the management.

Tip #3: Change your perspective

Open yourself up to a new perspective. This also includes admitting to yourself in the crisis that you need help. Surely you know the oft-quoted sentence by Albert Einstein: “You can never solve problems with the same way of thinking that created them”. This is especially true in a project crisis – remember, a crisis is an uncontrollable and existential problem. So get help to name problems more clearly and recognise new ways forward.

The assessment of what immediate action to take and what medium-term action to initiate once the new direction is clear needs to be looked at very individually in each crisis. There is no clear IF-THEN strategy here; if there were, there would be no project crisis. Oh yes, this is where our thinking rotates, because the head always wants quick, clear solutions, control and applicable methods.

Tip #4: Name the cause

When I am called in on crisis projects, I go through all areas of the project in my work and look at deeper levels. Often the real cause is not the obvious, generally postulated one. Look at where things are stagnating and what bundle of issues has led to this crisis situation quite openly and without questioning who is to blame.

Be prepared to recognise the real causes of the crisis, to uncover them and to speak out courageously!

In small projects the cause may sometimes be obvious, in large projects it is often much deeper. Ask yourself, for example:

  • Is everyone working towards the same objective?
  • Are the right people in the right places?
  • What resistance is there and what are the reasons for it?
  • Are there areas of unfeasibility that need to be addressed?
  • Has work been done for months on something that nevertheless does not work?
  • Is there a very formalistic and contract-oriented approach?
  • Is there a breakdown in trust and communication?
  • Are there external causes for which there is currently no solution (e.g. material bottlenecks, resource shortages, new legal requirements)?

Use this analysis phase to really uncover and talk about ALL.

Tip #5: Commitment to the project

There must be a willingness on the part of the steering committee and the project management to find a solution to the project crisis. If this is not the case, a project termination with all relevant consequences should be clearly stated.

Riding a dead horse really makes no sense. Personally, I prefer to go for a walk in the forest before I invest time in dead projects.

So it needs a clear commitment from the relevant stakeholders that a new way, measures and change are wanted to get out of the project crisis. This is the first essential decision. This is followed by many other decisions to get the project out of trouble and on the right track.

Tip #6: Methods do not help

In project management, people often look for methods and generic models to escape a crisis. In my experience, this is a dead end, because these methods and models could not prevent the project crisis from occurring or point out solutions in time. Likewise, statements like “But I did…”, “This customer is…!”, “This contract was never feasible…!”, “The development department did not deliver…!” do not help.

From my point of view, approaches are needed that lie outside of what is currently visible, as well as the admission by those involved that the previous methods did not work. In short: a different way of looking at the situation is needed. I have had very good experience with systemic work in which I “set up” the projects and teams and look at the interrelationships in a new way. In this way, resistance and fears among those involved can be recognised and resolved. Only on this basis can a new approach be defined and agreed upon.

Tip #7: The will to change things

The client and contractor urgently need to be willing to do things differently! This “doing things differently” has to be considered in a differentiated way. It includes all areas and levels of the project and the people involved, it includes communication and the personal attitude to the situation and the project crisis!

Bringing a mentor into the project to analyse the situation from the outside and develop joint solutions is often very helpful here.

In addition, communication is of course an important key to changing things in the project. The following questions, for example, can help:

  • How is leadership in the project designed to involve all relevant people?
  • How can connections be made clearer for everyone involved?
  • Which aspects can be separated out for later implementation?
  • Which requirements can be assigned to smaller teams of experts or external contractors?
  • How can methods be scaled to meet specific needs?
  • Where do changes need to happen to avert further risks?
  • Which people are needed for the rest of the project or who is the ideal person for the project?

 

Tip #8: Redefine the goal and the path

From my point of view, a person is needed to lead the team and the participants through the project crisis. The goal and possible sub-goals need to be adjusted and, if necessary, new ones defined, and important milestones need to be set. In addition, there is the need to understand a common project culture and HOW to implement it.

The following recommendations can help here:

  • Start creative problem-solving approaches! Bundle the knowledge and experience of those involved and external experts and make them quickly usable!
  • Address complexity step by step and involve all participants in understanding and proceeding!
  • See criticism as an indication for improvement, with respect and self-reflection!
  • Don’t waste time with explanations, just describe the past!
  • Appreciate successes AND mistakes for continuous improvement!
  • Appreciate processes – look for solutions – accept intermediate ways!
  • Fears lead to formalism – confidence leads to courageous decisions.
  • Keep the focus and keep aligning the project to the new goal!

 

Tip #9: Awareness and self-worth

Bring experts together and only let people who are empowered have a say and make decisions in the crisis.

What I am particularly concerned about and what is not always directly understood is the need to raise awareness and consciousness! When looking for the way out of the crisis, only involve people who are willing to think outside the box and who know that there is a solution, even if it is not yet directly recognised.

What does self-worth have to do with it? People who know their own qualities and are aware of them do not dwell on questions of guilt or “wanting to be right”.

You probably also know the difference between being surrounded by people who approach a problem solution together with a very high level of attention, experience and an open attitude, or working with colleagues who are scattered, stressed, exhausted, distracted, so that the space for finding a solution remains very limited.

Continuous repetition of problems and explanations why something does not work are, by the way, an indication of one’s own limitation – here self-observation is very helpful.

Tip #10: Communicate the end of the crisis

There is an effect of not communicating the end of a crisis, and it is similar to the pre-crisis effect of not looking too closely. So communicate when the crisis is over and the project is sailing in good waters again.

From experience I can say that some project participants need more time to recognise that a project crisis has been overcome. For these people, this means that you are constantly in crisis mode and that is not a good idea.

Use active project marketing and therefore inform everyone involved about the new goal, the new way to get there and the end of the project crisis. Know that there are still challenges and risks in the project, but they are beyond a crisis.

Conclusion

These 10 tips in a project crisis are intended to help you recognise the power of crisis to change and to experience it as a new scope for creativity.

If you are wondering whether your project is in crisis, this is probably not yet the case, because a project crisis is always existential and uncontrollable. And you will feel exactly that the usual and known solution methods are no longer effective.

If you are a victim of the crisis or see yourself as such, set out to look at the situation from a personal perspective and evaluate it for yourself. Here, too, it is essential to leave the context of habitual thinking, to step out of the victim role in order to recognise the opportunities that lie in every crisis. For example, would you have thought a year ago that it would be possible to organise cooperation in many companies via video conferencing, to sustainably reduce air traffic and thus reduce the burden on the environment, or to change schools from face-to-face to distance learning? There are many such examples that show that crises also offer opportunities.

I would like to share a few recommendations with you:

  • Print out the 10 tips.
  • Mark the tips that seem essential to you.
  • Write the action or insight that is relevant for you behind each marked tip.
  • And repeat the whole thing as a team, because that way you create a common benefit.

And last but not least: Have the courage to make a fresh start. Lower all personal barriers and resistances and be ready for a fundamental change in the project! Realise that things are possible right now that didn’t even seem possible before. Complaining doesn’t help anyone and if you have to complain, do it intensively and briefly; and then use the 10 tips against the project crisis.

 

Notes:

Katja Schäfer is also very happy to act as a mentor or coach in project crises. You can contact her very easily at https://www.beratung-katja-schaefer.de/.

Katja Schäfer has published other articles on the t2informatik blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Mind Change in Project Management

Mind Change in Project Management

t2informatik Blog: Movie or Movement – Moving big projects!

Movie or Movement – Moving big projects!

t2informatik Blog: Project manager in large projects

Project manager in large projects

Katja Schäfer
Katja Schäfer

Trainer and Coach

Katja Schäfer is breaking new ground in project management and works as a coach, seminar trainer and mentor in large-scale projects. Her mission is to bring more clarity, ease and success to complex and large projects.