Its very easy to start pointing fingers when things go wrong. Blame could be cast upon you and your team for any number of reasons, some irrelevant, some unjustified, some valid. If unchecked, this could drastically affect your reputation and bring down your status within the organization.
So how can project managers control such a crisis, especially when the triggering incident is something the team cant foresee, like a client changing their mind or a team member getting sick?
1) Document Everything
The first thing that management is going to do during a crisis is establish a sequence of events. They will ask to see your records for any significant information. This may include the project scope, task lists, documented communications, and meeting notes. While these documents may end up confirming your culpability, it can also absolve you of any responsibility if the incident is out of your control. Keep organized, complete records of every project communication, and if possible back up your data offsite, either digitally or with physical storage. You never know what the deciding factor might be in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.
2) Know the Difference Between Fault and Blame
Fault is direct, verifiable responsibility for an incident, whereas blame is seeing fault whether it truly exists or not. Fault is much easier to manage than blame, because it can be proven and disproven if you have the right documentation. Blame, on the other hand, carries the weight of whoever is saying it. If a CEO blames you, people listen, whether its true or not.
When you find that you or your team are truly at fault, immediately acknowledge it and find a solution. Staying quiet and withholding information will only swing opinions against you and make it harder for you to recover your reputation.
3) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
As mentioned in the previous point, a crucial method to avoiding blame is keeping up communications. Be the first to volunteer information as it is discovered. The more you stress your actual involvement (or lack of) in the incident, participate in developing a solution, and commiserate with affected parties, the more you will be seen as part of the solution, not the problem. The blame being thrown at your team may lessen and give way to a more reasonable discussion.
4) But Watch What You Say
When communicating with management, be mindful of the what others may have experienced and your position as one of the potential villains of the story. While confidence and a firm stance is good, too much may portray you as arrogant and uncaring. Also, try not to make promises or claims that you cant back up 100%, because the backlash for a false statement may be much worse than if you had not said anything at all.
5) Manage Emotions
Any triggering incident will probably invoke a lot of negative emotions. Much of it will probably be directed at you and your project team. There has to be visible, measurable action on your part to smooth any ruffled feathers. Take responsibility for what you can (but dont fall on your own sword doing so), and respond to affected parties quickly and efficiently.
Image credit, Flickr, Marc Smith