Dealing with the Project from Hell (Just in time for Halloween!)

It happens to the best of us in the project management world. That one project that causes us to cringe every time someone utters its name. That project which causes us to lose sleep and count new grey hairs on our head as it lumbers forward.

Every project has its inherent stress factors. Some more than others. But every now and again, a project emerges that seems to take that stress to the next level. The circumstances can vary. Whether it be disinterested stakeholders or a sponsor that cannot seem to grasp the concept of a ‘predefined scope’. It could be a situation whereby the project team cannot come to grips with the deadline or deliverables and continue to argue about how the project should be executed. Or, in the worst circumstances, it could be ALL of those factors.

Whatever the situation, the project manager may find themselves with the most unenviable task of having to coordinate and deal with the project from HELL.

Whenever a project emerges that has copious factors working against it, the project manager needs to be extra vigilant. Even the most dire of project situations can often be salvageable. So it’s paramount to keep a few key points in mind:

Stay Focussed

It may seem somewhat trite, but a project manager is only human. And if their project from hell is but one of several other projects that fall within their scope, it is only human nature to try to avoid the situation. Yet it is in those circumstances where the project with the most problems associated with it should be tackled first. The project manager should begin to address the project, breaking apart its key constituent areas (sponsor, scope, stakeholders, resources, timeline, etc) and try to itemize where the key problems with the project exist. Amidst the frustration, it is inherently possible that a solution can be garnered if the project manager approaches the project as a detective would.

Be Diplomatic and Patient

Frustration can often lead to confrontation and animosity. And nothing can make an already tenuous project worse off than interjecting conflict. As the project manager, you must act as the key arbiter of any issues that may arise. If the problems with the project stem from personality conflicts between team members, then it becomes even more paramount that the project manager focus on smoothing fences between parties that disagree. Above all else, exercise patience. Many times, a conflict on a project between resources or stakeholders may have external factors associated with it. It is possible that team members have butted heads in other situations. Regardless, as the project manager, dealing with and finding a solution to any conflicts will go a long way towards getting the project back on track.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Any time a project is hitting the skids, the project manager may feel desperation start to set in. Especially in circumstances where the problem appears to be a lost cause. And in certain cases, that may be true. However, it is at those moments that the project manager should do their utmost to try to get things back on track. So it is crucial that one does not get discouraged and have complacency set in. Try looking at the project in a more positive light. Make attempts during project meetings to be a little more lighthearted. Whatever the technique, use the social skills in your arsenal to not give the impression of being defeatist. If the team members feel their project manager is discouraged and disinterested in the project, that will permeate through the team like a virus. Leading by example in times of project turmoil can go a long way towards breathing life back into the project.

Don’t Take it Personally

This is, arguably, probably one of the most important aspects of dealing with a difficult project. Often times, project managers take an almost maternal role with their projects. They develop a sort of symbiosis between themselves and the project and the success of failure of that project will often be very tightly tied with the feeling of success or failure of the project manager. Whenever a project starts to go bad, it is only human for the project manager to start to introspect and self-evaluate. Often times, their frustration with the project will start to morph into general frustration with themselves and their own abilities. And once they start second guessing themselves and their decisions, this will only spiral the problem into a deeper hole. While it is not easy to simply don your best Mr. Spock garb and be as unemotional as possible, it is imperative to try not to take the situation personally as a whole. Examining the project to determine its problem areas will help focus your efforts. If you discover the problems are related to aspects of the project that are outside of your control, that will go a long way towards restoring your confidence. And ultimately, it is important to remember: it is just a job and it is nothing personal.