Avoiding Problems by Applying a Jeopardy Management Discipline
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

It is bad enough for a Project Manager when a project encounters a problem - but often that is just the start of distressing conversations with project stakeholders. The key to surviving this mess is recognizing the types of conversations that loom ahead and then avoiding the destructive deliberations while consciously giving preference to worthwhile discussions. One valuable tool that can help in the most serious of situations is a disciplined approach to jeopardy notification and planning.  


Perhaps you've been a witness to that most undesirable of situations: witnessing a Project Manager present some unfortunate news to an executive about a failing project. Intense . . . Merciless . . . Frustrating. And that's how the observers feel. For the participants this is potentially career threatening and a harbinger of the upcoming prickly discussions between the Project Manager and Stakeholders (e.g., executives, other leaders with an interested in project success, and line management) to work through a recovery. The hallway talk for the rest of the day will likely be about how the Project Manager was "beat up" by the executive, while the executive room talk might focus on the incompetence of the Project Manager. So how should Project Managers and Stakeholders come to grips with project bad news? Let's look at one example from my experience . . .   


Conflict Avoidance - In Three Decades, I've Seen it Work Only Once

Over two decades ago I joined a project that was very well run. With few exceptions, the direction, leadership and daily operation of this large project followed any of the best practices you could find in any project or program management guide. Our multi-year project was to deliver a new data communications hardware and software platform.

As we were crossing the mid-point of the project schedule it was apparent that the project was behind schedule. The management team elected to shield the stakeholders from this information for an extended period of time, probably in hopes that recovering the situation was possible - of course, this was contrary to their excellent judgment and practice in other project management matters. You might imagine that this was only delaying that contentious day when the stakeholders would learn that the project was behind schedule. But this day of reckoning never arrived because of an unexpected event: in response to a strike by union workers elsewhere in the company, the project was required to divert a significant portion of their management staff to help run daily operations.

Thus was born an official explanation for a delay in project completion: the delays were directly attributed to the redirection of project staff to support company operations for several months. In point of fact, this explanation accurately reflected the major source of the project delay, although it was not a fully complete explanation of the reason for the delay. The project stakeholders accepted the revised schedule and cost projections with hardly a complaint.

For this project, management chose to avoid conflict by withholding relevant project status information and this deceit was never discovered. Does this illustrate that misleading stakeholders is ethical and that withholding information about unfavorable project status from stakeholders is an appropriate response? Absolutely not! Quite the contrary: in nearly three decades of project work, this is the only instance where I have seen this tactic succeed - in every other instances where project management integrity has been compromised, the results have been unfortunate (and, in some instances, career terminating).


Three Fruitless Conversations When Problems Arise

Avoiding open discussions about problem situations is almost always detrimental to overall project success. The real lesson here is that Project Managers, team members, executives, and stakeholders all need effective methods of presenting, discussing and addressing bad news about project performance. Let's examine the seven different types of conversations that make up any dialogue between a Project Manager and Stakeholders on project problems. These first three are particularly ineffective, and result in an erosion of confidence, teamwork, and positive working relationships:

  1. Bullying: This is the "failure is not an option" discussion. When presented with the bad news, the Stakeholder resorts to restating the importance of the project, expressing disappointment in the project team, and ordering the Project Manager to go away and solve the problem. Stakeholders use this tactic to remain at a distance from the problem and avoid taking on any work towards a solution. Everyone leaves this conversation feeling worse, and the Project Manager leaves with the indelible impression that it is a mistake to bring bad news to that Stakeholder.
  2. Blame: Determining who is at fault and should be punished. This sometimes is expressed with Stakeholder questions like "Who caused this problem?" or "Why am I just being told of this problem now (implying that the messenger is to blame)?" This generally isn't a useful conversation - there's no way to satisfactorily answer the questions and come to closure. This is the means used by an inexperienced Stakeholder to vent frustrations resulting from the surprise of bad news; mature managers will rarely engage in this conversation.
  3. Excuses: Describing every possible reason the project team is not at fault for the situation. The Project Manager feels compelled to build a case, often for an unreceptive audience, that the project team has not caused the problem situation and that it is, in fact, a victim of the situation. This abdication of responsibility does nothing to improve the situation and most often serves only to decrease Stakeholder confidence in the Project Manger and project team.


Four Valuable Conversations That Aid Problem Resolution

These next four conversations are all positive actions leading to a professional exchange of information, partnering on problem resolution, and overall organizational improvement:   

  1. Current State: Through a detailed conversation, exchanging enough information to adequately convey the current situation. The Project Manager clearly articulates the issue along with the impact to the project and stakeholders, and engages in discussion with the Stakeholders to ensure exchange of all relevant information. It is helpful, and perhaps essential, to have this information in written form for reference and easy distribution. The discussion of Current State is a precursor to any tactical or strategic recovery planning; Project Managers who skip this step are creating inefficiencies in subsequent resolution and improvement activities.
  2. Recovery Actions - Solving the Immediate Problem Situation:Planning and acting to best recover from the problem situation based upon an adequate understanding of the current state. The entire focus is to solve this situation so that the problem is sufficiently addressed and project progress can continue. There is no consideration of root cause, preventing recurrence in the next project, training, or any other long term organizational improvement.
  3. Root Cause: These are the talks aimed at understanding the reasons for the current state of the project. Handled properly, this can result in some improved understanding about the effectiveness of the project team. The focus of discussion is on methods/processes used, steps taken, obstacles encountered, and the use of well-understood methods for making decisions; in rare situations there may be a need to understand the performance of individuals, but this is to understand skills, training needs, and responsibilities - not for assigning blame.
  4. Strategic Improvement: Making use of root cause information to make changes that will prevent this class of problem from recurring. Strategic improvements include process updates, training enhancements, personnel changes, and, sometimes, changes in performance incentives.


The Meandering (and Potentially Dangerous) Discussion About a Project Problem

The first discussion during which the Project Manager alerts the Stakeholders of trouble will have a seemingly out of control roadmap of conversations. Following the initial notification by the Project Manager, the excitement of the meeting grows with the introduction of a bit of bullying and blame, followed by some discussion aimed at understanding the current situation. After a bit of reasonably productive conversation, a twist occurs and the conversation returns to blame. In fact, the conversation may return to blame, bullying and excuses multiple times during the course of the conversation. What may not be obvious is that this uncontrolled interaction can be averted with a combination of Stakeholder leadership and Project Management discipline.


Advice for Stakeholders

These situations are an excellent opportunity for Stakeholders to demonstrate a maturity and grace in responding to the circumstances by:

  • Don't Intimidate: Being self-aware of your actions. If you find your questions sounding like bullying and blaming, consider how this behavior shapes the culture of the organization.
  • Avoid too Many Details: Avoid digging too deeply and attempting to understand every detail of the problem or solution - that is the job of the Project Team.
  • Coach: Offering suggestions and other coaching that will assist the team in resolving the situation.
  • Let the Team Own the Action Steps: Abandon any urge to take on take on responsibility for tasks that the team can accomplish on their own. Never take on any shared responsibility for problem resolution where your tasks, deliverables or schedule are vague, as this will likely confuse the recovery efforts.
  • Accountability: Ensuring accountability of the Project Manager to you for reporting a schedule for resolution and progress in executing the recovery plan.


Advice for Project Managers

There's a skill in announcing a schedule slip, cost overrun, or other serious project jeopardy. A Project Manager with seriously bad news to report can best serve the project team and Stakeholders by:

  • Be Prepared: Being well-prepared with information about the problem situation and possible recovery steps.
  • Make Clear Requests: Making very clear and specific requests for resources or other assistance.
  • Openly Share Information: Candidly sharing information with Stakeholders.
  • Utilize a Jeopardy Process: In serious situations, making use of a defined Jeopardy process that provides a structure for alerting stakeholders, planning recovery actions, tracking progress, and communicating status updates1.


The Value of a Jeopardy Management Process

In a project where issues thrive, schedules are crucial to the business, and tensions are running high, the handling of a jeopardy situation is fraught with peril. Unless you are anticipating an extended period of unusually sunny weather for your upcoming technology projects, you will almost certainly have to deal with difficult issues and jeopardy situations. Don't avoid discussions about problems. Abstain from the three types of destructive conversations and embrace the four helpful dialogues. In serious or complicated situations, use a jeopardy notification process. Mature leadership by Stakeholders coupled with solid recovery and communications planning by the Project Manager are key ingredients for emerging with a satisfactory resolution and with careers intact.

I've created a series of presentations on Jeopardy Management.  The first of these, Presentation - Resolving a Project Jeopardy, describes a simple structure for jeopardy resolution activities.