“The crisis management is not good vs bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse” – Andy Gilman
Crisis can strike when least expected, and when it does, it shows no mercy.
As a responsible project manager, you have to be prepared to deal with it the best way possible. Ideally, you want to foresee the crisis and do your best to avoid it, but sometimes there is just no dodging it. You have to face it and deal with it.
Managing a crisis is very tricky. While larger projects have a higher chance to get struck by it (since there is more work to do, more stuff to manage, more outs to calculate, etc.), small projects shouldn’t be lured into a false sense of security. The reality is that nobody is safe from disaster and disregarding the fact that it can happen to you, is the worst thing that you can come up with. You need to be ready to minimize the damage done to your clients and company.
Preparing for the crisis (Planning phase)
In the preparation phase for the possibly upcoming crisis situation for every given case, you need to think about all the outs that could potentially harm your project. Crisis doesn’t arise on its own out of nothing: it’s more like a combined result of faulty actions and decisions that turn it into reality.
Evaluate all the possible outcomes of your decisions and watch out for those ones that seem potentially harmful to your project. This should be an essential part of your planning process, and the art of estimation will help you out a great deal here.
Preparation phase is one of the most important things that you need to do as the project manager. Avoiding a potential crisis is your best case scenario and the more proficient you are in prevention, the better you, your team and project will be.
Crisis management plan (Documentation phase)
After evaluating potentially harmful outcomes and making sure you avoid as many of those as you can (which is a big deal, trust me), it’s time to make an action plan consisting of steps that should be undertaken for situations that can’t be avoided.
The crisis management plan serves two purposes:
- Firstly, it’s a confirmed document of specific actions that should be taken immediately if you so much as smell a crisis coming (much like people evacuating the building when there is just a small bit of smoke that triggers the fire alarm), without losing any time on decision making or improvising.
- Secondly, it will be distributed to all team members so that everybody will know what they need to do. When crisis strikes, it’s not only your problem anymore; everybody has to be involved in saving the day.
Try to make the plan as detailed as possible. Attention to detail is very important in this particular job, since people often lose their mind when something goes horribly wrong and can’t think clearly at the moment. Having each action described step by step will be of great help in those dire situations.
Stealing thunder (Actual crisis phase)
Stealing thunder is a concept that is borrowed from law. During law cases, one of the sides “steals the thunder” from the opposition by finding a flaw in their actions and disclosing it before others can do it.
What this means for project managers is that you should always declare a crisis situation immediately, if one arises. You might wrongly assume that you can handle everything yourself and making people panic isn’t going to help.
Don’t do that. 10 out of 10 times you will eventually get crushed by the situation that is getting worse every minute. Crisis isn’t something that anybody can deal with alone and postponing the inevitable is going to cause nothing but even more trouble.
Another thing to think about is your reputation at stake. Disclosing the crisis from the first day it happens is your best shot to save your good reputation, before the information leaks to the public (make no mistake, it will). This is the best way to assure your clients that you care about them and are doing everything to set things right, however paradoxical this might sound. It’s the absolute first step to take in your crisis management.
Make client safety your top priority
Your business depends on your clients heavily. When things start to get ugly, make client safety your top priority and do everything possible to minimize the damage done to them. It’ really hard to think clearly in tough times when you have endless pressing matters that need to be given a solution on the spot, but you need to think about the future.
What happens after the crisis is dealt with? How do you get back in business? If you manage to survive, but do not ensure client safety while doing it, you might as well never recover. The aftershock is more important than the crisis itself. You absolutely need to maintain client trust and satisfaction as high as humanly possible to have a chance of getting back on your feet.
Keep clients updated
Always keep your clients updated on what is going on and how you are handling the situation. It’s important to be completely honest with them in all aspects. Your clients are going to be no less worried and continuously communicating your actions and outcomes is the least thing you can do for them.
Again, remember, your reputation is at stake. Don’t try to play Superman all of a sudden: you could lose everything you spent years to build up, in just a matter of days.
Strategic and realistic thinking
These are the two most important concepts that you need to keep in your mind when handling a crisis. Whatever decisions you make need to be realistic and strategic. Losing the big picture is not what you want to do. Dreaming that everything will work out just fine, when facts tell you the opposite isn’t exactly good either.
Be an optimist and do not lose your confidence, but make sure you don’t drive yourself and your team into a false sense of security. You need to actually make the recovery happen, not just think you are going to.
Crisis is one of the best learning experiences
When you are successfully through the crisis, take your time to learn from your mistakes. Crisis is one of the most difficult situations you can find yourself in, but it’s also a rare learning experience. What could you do to prevent it from happening? What was the cause behind it? How to avoid similar situations in the future?
All of these questions will surely have specific answers and knowing those answers is one of the key things that will make you a better project manager. Knowledge is power, use it well.
On a final note I would like to tell you that while being aware of the crisis possibility is essential, you should never get obsessed with the idea. Don’t think about this all the time and try to find trouble when there is none.
Think of your project like a castle to be under siege: you know that the enemy is approaching and you did everything possible to prepare for the attack. But waiting for the enemy to attack when they are not there yet, is hardly going to help. Tread lightly -)