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Management Skills to Deal with Insidious Project Problems

“The rescue manager will be called on to play a significant number of roles during the execution phase. He or she may even need to play many roles in the same day – or even in the same meeting. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot at stake, and virtually no margin for error. The rescue manager needs to be comfortable with his or her level of skills in the areas discussed in this section, or complement these with the skills of strong second-in-commands.”

“Many problems that projects face are highly localized. They may be highly destructive, but with the right help, they can be overcome. For example, if a database is not being built because of a lack of skills, the answer may be to hire a database specialist for a week to come in and mentor the team. The same can be said of many other business or technology processes. The problems are severe and real, but tools are available to focus and correct. People are aware of the problems and with the appropriate prioritization and management support, they can address them.”

“The more insidious problems that lead to project disasters are often the ones that go undetected. Insidious problems remain hidden below the surface and may only be nagging feelings in the minds of project team members.”

“For example, perhaps the stakeholder does not really know what he needs, but he is along for the ride until he is needed to sign off on a deliverable and refuses. Consider the possibility that the team is working very hard and cannot see th at they are not moving toward a stationary target. Perhaps resentments are piling up and forcing the team culture to sour, until the buildup means that the extended team can no longer function together.”

“The latter insidious problems need strong management to bring them to the surface before they become severe, discourage the problems from manifesting themselves, and also to create a positive atmosphere that is no longer a catalyst for the problems to muliply. The key skills the rescue manager requires to enable this to happen are discussed in the sections that follow.”

Persuasion

“The strongest skill or trait required of the rescue manager is the ability to persuade everyone on the project team to remain focused, committed, and in control. This will require dealing with individual problems, personal problems, and professional jealousies. We’ll look at this in more detail in a future section.”

“Because the rescue manager can be a facilitator from another group or from another firm, there may even be the perception that this person doesn’t know what we do. The key is that the rescue manager knows about salvaging projects and should be used as a catalyst to make things happen. The rescue manager is ultimately going to return responsibility back to the project manager when the salvage operation is successful, so the faster things turn around, the faster they can return to a better normal.”

“This is a powerful persuasion technique. Without an axe to grind or any history to prove, the rescue manager can persuade the different, sometimes opposing parties, to look past differences and focus on common objectives.”

Negotiation

“While persuasion is the art of getting someone to do what you want them to, negotiation in the context of a project rescue is slightly different. It involves having the ability to make reasonable tradeoffs so that the executive sponsor comes out looking good, the technical team is motivated to complete the mision, and the business users get a useful solution that benefits the bottom line. Negotiation skills are about giving everyone what they need so that they will be constructive participants in the initiative.”

Decision Making

“Not every decision is going to be optimal, but the rescue manager is going to be looked at as the person to push the envelope and make things happen. This requires the skills to compare several solutions, create an audit trail, and make a defensible decision. This is further proof to the extended project team that every one is serious about doing what it takes to get the project done.”

Prioritizing

“If you consider that you don’t know what you don’t know, along with the fact that resources have limitations, you need to play it safe prioritizing the project goals up front and focusing on what can be reasonably delivered. This allows the project team to focus their energy on delivering the most important items, and moving down the requirements list as resources and time allow.”

“New items will need to be evaluated objectively, not in embarrassment or defensiveness that they were missed, and priorities may change. The ability to prioritize, persuade, and perhaps negotiate will then come into play to convince the executive sponsor, business users, and the delivery team to, yet again, adjust the direction of the initiative. In most cases, the prioritization will involve convincing this same group of people to keep the status quo until the rescue plan is completed.”

Operational Skills

“With so many different things happening at once, the rescue manager is going to need to be highly organized. The messy desk, unkempt office, or corrupted disk drive is not going to convince a highly energized and nervous project team to entrust the future of their project if all the deliverables and justification for the deliverables are a mess. You need to have organized electronic and paper files that can be located within minutes of a request. A common problem here is version control or maintaining control over changes to any of the documents.”

“Here is a real-life example that emphasizes these points. A project team for a major manufacturer had missed several project deadlines in the past. The one coming up was critical to the business and another missed deadline would go over very badly. The entire project team committed to staying up overnight until the release was signed off and working in the Production environment by the following morning. Some problems were detected in one of the acceptance tests at 1:30 am. A meeting run by the project manager examined the bug list and divided responsibilities among five different teams of developers. The team immediately went to work.”

“One of the executives who decided to lend moral support to the team by staying up with them asked the project manager where each individual group was going to save their changes and how they would be tested. A look of awareness crossed the project manager’s face with the realization that all the groups could be working in different technical environments. This would make a merge of their changed code bases very difficult, if not impossible, with the tools that were available. Things were stopped, and the team reconvened. They agreed to a process and went back to work. The release was delivered in time to satisfy the users, who as it turned were skeptical about the team’s ability to deliver, but were ecstatic to be proven wrong.”

“Many problems were encountered and resolved that night. Many required substantial hard, technical, or business skills. But the lack of organization in one element, such as change control, which appears so obvious that many professionals would just nod their head and say it was obvious, was the difference between keeping a major client happy or ready to look for another vendor.”

Cheerleading

“Let’s remember that the project team is probably very tired by this point in the project rescue. They are going to need substantial encouragement to keep their passion alive and their minds focused. This encouragement should not be false, but should rather be based on true events.”

“The rescue manager needs to keep the team pumped through several approaches. They should be told when they are doing a good job. Reassurance should be provided when doubts set in. It’s important to consider how new problems are successfully dealt with to keep confidence high.”

“The rescue manager also needs to ensure that all the tools that are needed are readily available, comfort is being provided, and that the extraordinary efforts of the project team are being recognized and supported.”

Problem Solving

“Apart from tracking progress, the rescue manager is going to need to go deep into some areas of the project when a problem or problems are identified. Other members of the project team are going to be intensely busy in their own activities.”

“The rescue manager needs to take the initiative and gather more facts and information and possibly reach a conclusion before turning it over to someone to fix. Obviously, a problem solving rescue manager can save the time of other team members and use their time more efficiently. The ability to multitask is mandatory as problems materialize in clusters. The rescue manager also needs to have the ability to complete the many tasks that are started.”

Honesty and Integrity

“Honesty and integrity take a long time to build, but can be destroyed in seconds. It is vital that all the members of the project team feel that management, and especially the rescue manager, is being totally up front and honest about progress and the rewards. The project rescue, which is going to require enormous effort from everyone involved, cannot succeed without this. We are going to talk more about honesty and integrity in future sections, but the important message is to walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Flexibility

“By now it should be a given that it is impossible to capture every aspect of a project 100 percent accurately before it starts. The difference between good and excellent management is the ability to deliver while real world impacts are hitting the project.”

“Some managers accept too much and try too hard to please. Other managers simply refuse to budge from their usual way of doing things. Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful. The rescue manager needs to be flexible in how an end goal is reached, while maintaining consistency in the end goal.”

“The key to tradeoff-flexibility is having a tradeoff method that the stakeholders understand. The method consistently applied should help remove the appearance of arbitrariness. This method can be included in the change management process.”

Communication

“Managers should enjoy communicating to the rest of the project team. There is no such thing as too much communication during a project rescue. People should be copied on e-mails, included in meetings, and allowed to ask their questions. Trying to be efficient by limiting communication can be highly detrimental in a project rescue.”

Detail-Oriented

“This is also not the time to trust that things will fall into place. It is necessary to work with checklists and to work at a low level of detail because there probably will not be enough time to do another rescue.”

“The test bed is a good tool for automating some of the detail checking early in the rescue intervention. This should be augmented with a strong focus on the little details in the project.”

Strong Lie Detector

“People may sometimes tell you what they believe you want to hear, or what they themselves want you to believe, or they may even believe it themselves. The ability to pick up on subtle word choices and phrasing to identify untruths or half truths is another important characteristic. This also has to be done in a non-confrontational and nonthreatening manner.”

High Energy

“Because the project rescue is a dynamic period with many concurrent activities, the team needs to be highly energetic. Things have to be done now. They cannot be left until tomorrow. If some business clarification is needed, someone needs to make a call now – not send an e-mail and wait two days for a reply.”

“Rescue managers, by virtue of their position and role, are watched carefully by all the team members who are making up their minds to follow and believe or not. High energy exhibited in meetings, status reports, and conversations is infectious and will inspire many to try and rise to the occasion.”