Crises in Projects are as Certain as Death and Taxes

There is a plethora of project management literature focusing on teaching the principle of project management, the tools in a project manager’s belt, setting up a project plan, creating logical charts, creating budgets etc.…

Project managers who rely only on these principles alone are in for a sombre awakening at the first crisis. Even though crises in projects are inevitable, the disastrous aftermaths of many crises can be mitigated through the effective use of planning tools from emergency management. What is a crisis anyway?


Patrick Lagadec defined a crisis as “an incident that upsets normal conditions, creating a disturbance that cannot be brought back to normal using existing or specialized emergency functions.”

How do we prepare for a crisis?

The primary strategy for managing crises in projects is to think through the project before the project is begun and apply risk analysis one on one by asking “What if (Insert worst case scenario here)?” a good project manager will engage all stakeholders to participate in tabletop exercises and modify his or her risk assessments.

What if?

Unfortunately, Magic Balls are not awarded to PM with their certificates; they can't always foresee every contingency when planning and managing their projects. Many spurious events affecting project milestones and resource allocations can surface once the project is underway. Veteran project managers rise to the challenge and in most cases manage to either identify the root cause of the crisis and eliminate it or contain the crisis to prevent from spreading like cancer throughout the project.

The million dollar question?

Millions of dollars are wasted every year on failed initiatives (Denver Airport Baggage Handling System). In most cases, failure is attributed to either poor planning or unforeseen crises (internal or external). What can a project manager do to contain or prevent a crisis?

Early detection:

Crises detection is a collective task. Every crisis usually starts as a small incident (scope creep, developers are not happy with their assignments, stakeholder not participating in project meetings…etc.) project managers work on eliminating these “small incidents” before they grow to a full-fledged crisis.

This first step entails carefully thinking through the following question: What is the actual issue here? If this question is glossed over, mistakes are bound to follow. The only way to ensure that a crisis has been properly defined is to constantly test the definition of the crisis against all available facts.

Crisis Containment:

The second step to detection is containment; we cannot risk a single crisis spreading throughout the project. As a leader you should:

  • Communicate liberally with all stakeholders. They want to know what happened, how, what will happen next. Information voids are always filled by rumour and speculation. Be candid and don't speculate.
  • Use quick and decisive action to isolate the crisis and prevent a full project collapse (even in the face of limited information)
Weathering the Storm:

Teams look up to their leaders during a crisis, as a leader, you should:

  • Be a calming force; don’t pour gas on the fire by panicking. 
  • Utilize your team expertise to define an action plan, set the specifications it must meet and establish the required minimum to be attained for the action plan to be executed.
  • Define what is right. The basis for any decision must be the question: “What would be right?” until that has been clarified, you cannot distinguish between a right and a wrong compromise. It goes without saying that is the issue of “what is right” is distinct from the question “Who is in the right.” Concentration on who will create a rift in your team.
  • Work out alternatives, use dissent, and exploit the insights gained from your team’s opinion. Seeing alternatives is a prerequisite for making any decision. Always explore the alternatives regardless of the source.
  • Gather feedback and follow up systematically. Always monitor your decision’s implementations until the desired outcome has been achieved (You don’t want to solve one crisis by creating a bigger one)
Document and learn:

Crises often come with a hefty price, jump on the opportunity to learn from the experience, document the reasons, your action plans and don’t forget to give credit where credit is due.

Comments (5) -

Jason Reider 5/10/2014 2:45:22 PM

my personal experience with PM(s) is that they seem to always underestimate development issues (poor architecture or performance) when brought to them by developers then they start bitching about it when the client brings it to their attention.


What you described is called poor project management. these type of project managers should be re-trained

Jason Reider 5/14/2014 5:34:25 PM

Agreed.Unfortunately this is not the way our team work.
We seem to do a lot of bitching without taking actions.

Naser Hussain 5/14/2014 8:07:54 PM

Panicking part is easier said than done. our last PM used to accused everyone of trying to get him sacked whenever something went wrong.
now he is our PMO lol

I doubt he will be a PMO for a long time.

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