Be the Eye of the Hurricane – Navigating a Project Storm

Andy Silber | September 24, 2019

Project Storm
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Sometimes managing a project can feel like you’re in the midst of a hurricane, where chaos dominates and screaming is your only hope of communication. It’s a commonly held belief that the center of a hurricane—the eye—is perfectly calm. So while your project might suddenly become a raging storm of epic proportions, your best course of action is to stay calm and centered.

The people who wrote the PMBOK envisioned that good planning could hold a storm at bay, but in reality, there are factors beyond your control. Risk analysis and mitigation plans are useful, but you can’t predict everything, especially in a changing environment. Sometimes you’ve got to make your Gantt chart and nail it over the windows to protect from flying tree branches. Depending on the ferocity of the storm, you’ll need to approach the challenges with different tools.

Category 1: Very dangerous winds will produce some damage

A category 1 storm is what I call “a Typical Monday;” they happen about once a week, and barely leave a mark on your status report. A category 1 project storm is when a task that isn’t on the critical path is delayed. This is usually only by a small amount, such that the task remains off the critical path.

Even these storms require your intervention. You will still need to update the plan to make sure this delay doesn’t have ripple effects. For example, an engineer that is waiting for a part will be on vacation when the part arrives; this can turn a two-day delay into a two-week delay. You also need to make sure that resources are still busy with useful work.

To those who don’t understand your plan, a category 1 delay might seem important. In an actual storm, these are the kinds of people who clean out the local grocery store at the first strong wind. You’ll need to communicate the delay to your stakeholders and explain why it’s not important.

Category 2: Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage

Category 2 storms are similar to the Category 1 storms, but the delay impacts something on the critical path. They’re things like a component is going to arrive a week late, delaying a build. If you can reorder your tasks so that your milestones aren’t delayed, this is only category 2 storm.

This reworking of your schedule increases your risks, so you need to watch everything closely. Often your plan can easily tolerate one reshuffling, but if you try to do it again you’ll find your flexibility is gone and your milestones start moving out.

Category 3: Devastating damage will occur

Category 3 is similar to a category 2 project storm, except that you’ll have consumed some slack (if you have any) to keep hitting your milestones.

Slack is a controversial thing to have in your schedule. Many stakeholders want to see slack-free schedules and then get upset when dates start slipping. I think it’s best to agree upfront that things don’t always go according to plan. You really only have two choices: put some slack in the schedule, or have a Zen-like acceptance when the schedule slips.

Category 4: Catastrophic damage will occur

With category 4 storms we get into batten-down-the-hatches territory: a milestone will slip. Your response to a category 4 is about minimizing damage to the overall project, not on maintaining the schedule. Don’t focus on the slipping milestone, focus on the project completion date; do what you can to keep that date unchanged.

It’s tempting at this point to skip some risk reduction work to keep on schedule. Be very careful about that. You had put that into your project plan for a reason. If that reason doesn’t make sense anymore, then it could be fine to drop the risk reduction effort. But if it’s still important, you could be making things much worse by rushing through some important work.

Category 5: Catastrophic damage will occur

Category 5 storms are spectacularly devastating and can, in fact, lay waste to your entire project. Maybe an assumption you made (and called out in your FMEA) turned out to be wrong. Or a major vendor has pulled out of your virtual team. Or a competitor announced that they’re about to release a similar product. For whatever reason, this isn’t a little slip in schedule, but a major change in the environment. It might even be an actual hurricane.

You’ll be deploying the mitigations you had called out in your FMEA or engaging back-up vendors. These actions will likely result in more delays, increased costs, or reduced features. You’ll likely need to rebuild your entire plan from scratch.

Here’s the hardest part of a category 5 storm: your stakeholders will need to reconsider whether to complete the project. If the added cost reduces your margin until they’re too thin or if a critical feature will be missing, why throw good money after bad? Rather than suffer from the sunk-cost fallacy, you might decide it’s better to cut your losses and move forward with a more promising project.

 

Rarely can you control the environment sufficiently to prevent the storms, but good project management practices can help you weather them. And, as Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”

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