Four Signs Your Project Needs a Reset and Four Ways to Intervene

Sometimes you can just feel a project losing momentum. The team seems disengaged, you’ve missed an important KPI and the goal line keeps receding into the future. It may be time for a reset. In this post, Tom Wujec shares four warning signs that a reset may be necessary and four strategies for getting your project back on track.

Written by Tom Wujec • 1 Dec 2022

Alarm reset

How’s it going? No, I mean how’s it really going?

In project management, you can typically answer the first question with what I call the “front channel” – aspects of the project that are easily measured – e.g., project deliverables, timelines, KPIs, etc. Answering the second question, however, requires assessing the “back channel” – how your team is showing up and engaging with their work.

If you’re sensing potential problems in the back channel, your project may be losing momentum, and it’s almost certain that front-channel metrics will soon start to suffer. As team leader, it’s critical to keep an eye on both channels – to make sure that the project updates you’re sharing are clear and relevant to the team (the front channel), while, at the same time, ensuring that your people are leaning into and fully engaging with their work (the back channel).

How can you tell whether folks are leaning in or not? Alex “Sandy” Pentland at the MIT Media Lab offers four indicators:

  • Body posture: What’s the team’s body language in meetings? Are they alert, leaning forward and ready to participate? Or are they slumped or slouching, or nervous and on edge?
  • Eye movement: Are team members making eye contact with you and with each other? Or are they staring into the middle distance or pre-occupied with their devices?
  • Head nodding: Is there the normal amount of head nodding during meetings? Or has the head nodding stopped? 
    Syncopation of tone of voice: Are team member voices animated or flat? Is there alignment in tone among all team members or are one or two members holding back or sounding antagonistic?

I recently facilitated a long-term strategy workshop – what I call a Horizon 3 session – where a senior team member exhibited warning signs on all four indicators: he was sitting back, arms crossed, providing short, curt input during our discussions. As others continued working, I took him aside to check in on how he was feeling and asked him whether he thought the workshop was relevant to his job. At first he was hesitant to open up, but after realizing I was truly curious, he admitted that he was distracted by a multitude of pressing, near-term, Horizon 0 issues he was dealing with.

So, we pivoted. His team began working on the Horizon 0 issues, while the larger group continued grappling with Horizon 3 planning. We simply enlarged the roadmap, creating a broader framework that encompassed everyone’s needs. My recalcitrant team member quickly engaged and became a leading advocate for our work together.

As team leader, you’re likely to face similar moments when you need to be nimble and pivot. Such moments call for compassionate communications – when, rather than calling out undesirable behavior, you probe for issues, surface the emotions behind those issues, and work toward solutions that meet as many needs as possible.

It helps, of course, to have tools for dealing with these situations. So here are four “plays” drawn from the PMI Wicked Problem Solving playbook to help you intervene when the back channel is flashing warning signals:

  • Leap: Have participants create two drawings – one depicting the situation you’re in and the other showing the desired state you’d like to achieve. Have the team discuss the drawings and the “blocks” that prevent you from moving from point A to point B. Then explore potential strategies for leap-frogging those blocks and achieving the desired state.
  • Make a Scene: Have participants either write down or act out a story representing the current situation. Draw the people involved, use thought bubbles to identify what they’re thinking or experiencing, and capture their interactions. Scenes help reduce a situation to its essence and create a visual framework for exploring and improving upon the current state.
  • The Elephant in the Room: Have participants list out all the positive and negative factors in a situation – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then have team members categorize and compare these issues. This play is useful for uncovering the proverbial “elephant in the room” – issues that the team has been avoiding. And it creates space to have authentic conversations and a deeply constructive dialogue about those issues.
  • Gifts and Hooks: Have each department, group or team describe what skills, experiences and capabilities they bring to the project. Then have them share their “hooks,” i.e., what’s important in their work and what they need to remain engaged. Try employing Gifts and Hooks as an alternative to an “icebreaker.” It’s a great way to engage team members by having them share information about themselves that is directly relevant to the situation.

Knowing when and how to use these plays requires some thought and discernment on your part. Try to identify and assess the issues your team is facing as objectively as possible. Then consider which play is most directly relevant to those issues. You can find additional help in the PMI Wicked Problem Solving playbook where each of these plays is explained in greater detail.

The critical thing when facing back-channel issues is to engage constructively with your team. Forgo the temptation to finger point or complain. Using PMI Wicked Problem Solving, you can get back on track, reengage your team and build renewed momentum into your project.

Tom Wujec headshot

Tom Wujec
Executive Facilitator & Founder | The Wujec Group Inc

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