Prepare for the worst

project managers and sponsors must work together to limit damage from unwanted surprises

Project managers and sponsors must work together to limit damage from unwanted surprises.


Bad things can happen on any project: Your major stakeholders fail to respond to project queries in a timely manner; a solution doesn't appear to be shaping up as you'd anticipated; a major decision maker suddenly leaves the organization; suppliers are delivering late or substandard equipment, materials or products. In all these cases and more, the project manager can be burdened with a sense of dread or futility.

But inaction is rarely an option. The project manager has to instead find a way to respond amid pressure or threats. Dynamic project managers are proactive when bad news hits. They aim to take the swiftest route to get the project back on track. Seeking counsel, testing project assumptions and pre-empting escalation by engaging senior stakeholders are all key to success.

Standard practices to achieve this level of openness and trust include:

  • Honest planning and accurate forecasting
  • Informal, often unplanned, 5- to 10-minute ad hoc catch-up sessions with stakeholders
  • Communicating potential concerns early
    • If the concern becomes an issue, it can be readily escalated.
    • If the concern dissipates, no one is affected.
  • Ownership of the issue and presentation of practical solutions
  • Stepping back from emotion to assess multiple perspectives
  • Focusing on business benefits and project objectives
  • Remaining outcome-oriented and positive
  • Seeking guidance to confirm appropriate solutions

Forging positive communication channels (both formal and informal) with sponsors helps actively manage impending crises, and the project manager can assess and implement an appropriate redoing of the project plan.



If there is to be unhappy or unpleasant news, it's always best for sponsors to hear it directly from the project manager rather than through another stakeholder. Giving the sponsors the details up front allows them to reflect and ready themselves before responding; it provides a chance to act, rather than react.

When bad news rears its ugly head, think about the adage of “forewarned is fore-armed.” Or consider a quote from the late (and amazing) Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture: “One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don't worry about, because I have a plan in place if they do.” PM

img Sheilina Somani, RPP, FAPM, PMP, is the owner of the U.K.-based consultancy Positively Project Management, a senior project manager, a speaker and a mentor.




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