Situational project management


We have all seen it. A conflict arises and an experienced project manager is able to use their street smarts and technical skills to communicate and diffuse the situation and get the stakeholders and team members to focus on the issue. Another project manager may do the same physical steps, but the results are disastrous, the team can’t get over petty items and cannot focus on the real issue and success is limited. This presentation explores how a Distinguished Project Manager is able to analyse the situation and take the appropriate action for that situation with the various stakeholders. It looks not only what tool to use, but when to pull the trigger, who to inform, how to inform, and how to manage expectations of the team. The presentation presents a model of an individual’s makeup, internal components that drive their behaviour, and several stories that reflect various "Situation Project Management" examples and how you can analyse a situation to determine the best approach to resolving the conflict.

The presentation looks at how a Distinguished Project Manager uses their “tools,” their experience, and their individual makeup for handling conflict within a project. This paper only focuses on a small subset of situational Project Management and unfortunately it is focused more on “confrontational” situations and the perspective of the people involved in the resolution.

The first part of the presentation is to present a review of communications channels in general and the challenges to having a focused communication channel. Second, the paper presents a model that comprises the makeup on an individual. This model looks at both the individuals training and technical aptitude, but also the influence of experience and individual values drive the behavior of an individual to the situation. Finally, the paper looks at traits and characteristics required of the project manager in order to be effective.

This paper is written with the concept for supporting a PowerPoint presentation. Therefore the information will be presented in a series of bullet points and slides opposed to a free-flowing document that neatly ties things together with strong entrances and exits. It should be said that there is a basic assumption that all parties involved are of high ethical standards.


We live in a world of many dimensions. These dimensions can be identified in terms of physical, logical, or spatial. Communication takes place at random points within these dimensions. Not only is the channel itself subject to many dimensions, the mindset of the people in the communications is subject to multiple dimensions of involvement, commitment, and impact.

Communication Model


A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®) (PMI, 2008) includes nine integrated knowledge areas. One of these nine knowledge areas is communication. Within the communication knowledge area, as depicted in Exhibit 1, a simple communication model is presented. This communication model has two people involved; one is the sender and the other is the receiver. The model has a message transmitted from the sender and encoded, in other words thoughts are turned in the words, and sent along a communication channel to the receiver where the words are decoded and then absorbed into the receiver’s mind. This simple model assumes many things about a dedicated communication 1) there are no external distractions impacting the sender or the receiver 2) the individuals are committed to the communication itself and 3) that there is a feedback loop from the receiver to sender to acknowledge the message.

Communication Model (Davis, 12010)

Exhibit 1 Communication Model (Davis, 2010)

However, as depicted in Exhibit 2, communication takes place in a world full of distractions and preconceived notions. Each individual has their own mindset, a way of looking at the world and how that is a factor in communication. It may be that the person performing the role of the sender may be a subordinate communicating to a vice president. In this case, the sender is careful to use the proper buzzword or other politically correct statements so as not to cause translation trouble. The receiver might feel that they have things which are more important to do and just sort of nod in agreement on whatever message comes from sender; there can be background noise among many other distractions both sensory and mental. Exhibit 2 is purposely presented with a busy set of graphics behind, above, on, and around the communication model. This is to demonstrate that communication is just one of many things going on in the dimensions of a business relationship. It is naïve to think that a person within the communication path may not have other things going on that could influence their level of involvement within the communication itself. They may have had a personal item outside of work; perhaps a recent automobile accident has her thinking “I’ll get a new car for transportation“or they may have a son or daughter getting married or, they may have had a fight with their significant other the night before. It is possible that their attention is not 100% committed to the communication that is being transmitted.

Communication Distractions (Davis, 2010)

Exhibit 2 – Communication Distractions (Davis, 2010)

On a side note, the entire concept of multitasking plays an important role in the success of communication. This paper will not go into multitasking or its benefits and distractions, however it does it acknowledge that multitasking impacts a person’s level of concentration and/or involvement in any communication; be it an individual status provided on a conference call, or it could be reading an e-mail while trying to complete some other task. For the purpose of this paper multitasking is considered noise in the communication path.


The sender in the communication model is the originator of the message. Here the sender will be considered the individual that acknowledges a situation exists and is communicating the situation and the appropriate action to other key stakeholders.


The receiver in this communication model is a stakeholder involved in the project that needs to understand the message is coming from the sender. The receiver’s level of attention to the message may differ dependent upon the time in the project in which a message is sent, the direct impact on their state in the project, or the situation in which it occurs.

Business / Cultural Protocol

The purpose of situational Project Management the overall protocol of the business environment needs to be examined. The communication may be governed by business rules or cultural protocol of the individuals involved, there are some cultures in which lower-level workers are not allowed to challenge executives, or are they are not expected to speak up unless they are asked questions. These protocols, although they are unwritten, are a significant environmental component of situational Project Management. This concept will be explored in much more detail in the following sections.

In a 2004 article for ComputerWorld, Gopal K. Kapur (2004) presents the concept of Intelligent Disobedience; this behavior is when a project manager may disregard culture and protocol for the better good of the project and the organization. Using the example of a guide dog refusing to let a blind person cross a road, Kapur defends the responsibility of a project manager to breech protocol. Kaptor also acknowledges this is a dangerous risk that could harm the project manager’s career. (¶6)

One to Many

To further complicate the model being discussed here, most of the communications and situational Project Management involves one to many instead of 1 to 1. This brings in several factors including both volume and personal makeup of the individuals involved within the communication.


As the number of stakeholders involved in the communication increases, the corresponding number of people possible moves and communication paths increases accordingly.

318,979,564,000 Moves

There are a possible 318,979,364,000 different combinations of piece movements in the first four moves in a chess game. Expanding that acknowledgment to situational Project Management, it is possible that there could be over 318 million components of communication in the first four interactions between sender and receiver. The conclusion from this is that the sender and receiver need to focus on the message or else communication will never be effective.

Communication Channels

Returning to the PMBOK Guide®, Exhibit 3 depicts that the number of communication paths increases directly with regard to the number of people involved in the communication path. The standard presents a formula that allows you to calculate the number of channels based on the number of people. In other words, the more people involved the more likely there is a possibility of miscommunication.

Communication Paths (Davis, 2010)

Exhibit 3- Communication Paths (Davis, 2010)

Modern technology has also impacted the mix of channels in the communication paths. Frequently people may be having a private chat session while on a conference call or an associate may be texting someone else (even in the same room) while a discussion takes place. The mobile access to information and communication is having a major influence on the Project Manager’s Governance model and how stakeholders work together. In a different article, Gopal Kapur (2007) discusses the concept of MADS (Management Attention Deficit Syndrome) in which he argues that many executives are so addicted to technology and ‘toys’ that they cannot focus on a single topic for any period of time. So to add to the complexity, it’s not just the number of people, it’s the variety of channels, and the amount of time an individual spends in each channel.


For the purpose of this paper, we will assume that every individual in the communication models is a stakeholder of project results. With that being said there is a major assumption that every individual stakeholder has the same mindset and commitment to the project in order for effective communication. This is the crux of situational Project Management. Not every individual has the same focus on a current issue and therefore the project manager may need to alter their method of communicating the situation to the stakeholders in order for it to be understood and resolved in an expedient manner.

The Mrs. Stockwell Rule

Mrs. Stockwell, my high school English teacher, taught the importance of documenting a situation. One of the lessons she covered invovled questions you should ask whenever you are gathering information. These questions are: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? These same rules apply in situational Project Management; define what the issue is you are addressing and use that definition to determine the proper resolution.


“Who” is a way of identifying the people that are involved. They could be organizations, but most likely they are the people representing organizations. The “Who” should always involve people that are identified in a stakeholder list, otherwise they are probably outside the scope of the projects/program and should be treated as such. The RACI process is also fundamental in determining the organization that the “Who” resides.


“What” is the means of identifying the problem; it could be a lack of a physical item or a missing intellectual resource, or organizational issues, or turf wars, or time slots on sharing a common resource such as a test environment, or it could be lack of direction or overall business strategy and knowledge, and finally it could be the team members don’t understand what is trying to be accomplished.


“When” is maybe one of the most frequent opportunities for situational Project Management. There is a constant demand for having it now, which requires an estimation on how quickly can it be done and scheduled and finally expediting the process to meet this immediate need all play a role in Situational Project Management. “When” has both a role for implementation, as well as a role in reaction. For example a late deliverable in the first 2 weeks of the project may not get an immediate escalation; however, a late delivery one week before testing may get an immediate escalation.


“Where” is one of the more interesting parts of defining the situation. It could include a physical location (work can’t be done in a northern city due to a major snowstorm) or it could include a level of implementation (the module that involves posting the transaction to the general ledger has a significant defect) also “Where” could involve a part of the overall process that is being implemented with the project (there is a defect when the user tries to update an order after an item has been posted on backorder).


“Why” is used in this sense as to why the situation is important and needs to be addresses. It is not a root-cause analysis as to why the situation arose.


“How” is the definition of action that needs to be taken in order to resolve the issue.


As described in Section 2, Communication Model, each message is encoded and decoded. There are many factors involved in this process of communication that can impact the communication and resolution of the issue. In his book Listening and Human Communication, Andrew Wolvin (2010) discusses how individual will implement filters in communication so they only really hear the message they wish to hear. These filters are a significant barrier to communication as they can be conscious or unconscious filters based on many different criteria.


This could include business culture or geographic culture, but the unwritten rules of how humans are to interact is a major factor in defining filters and influencing the translation of the message.

Interpretation of the words

English is a difficult language, and as work teams become increasing global, many project stakeholders have English as a second language. The interpretation of the words being used can cause confusion. For example: “I recently looked ‘up’ a friend in Escanaba, Michigan UP and he was upset with me for not following up on an email.” This humorous look at the word “up” shows how that word can be used in many ways. It has different interpretations based on context, intent, and vernacular.


Expanding on the “Up” usage as defined in the previous section, the context of the communication is important. Humans communicate not only through words, but body language (smiles, frowns, fidgeting etc.), and timing. Words can often be taken out of context and result in a miscommunication and actually create a situation. So both the sender and the receiver must be aware of the context of what has been said.


As a certified Program Management Professional I cannot write a document on situational Project Management without mentioning governance as a critical component of the overall communication channel. Exhibit 4 provides a general definition of governance that is used as the basis for this document. It is imperative that the project manager, and program manager, establish a governance model and the business rules for how team members will interact throughout the lifecycle of the work effort. By having this established up front it will be used as the rulebook for handling different situations within the lifecycle of the project. It is true that the best way to solve problems is to prevent the problem from happening; however, we know that in the real world that isn’t always the case. But with good upfront discussion and documentation on governance and individual roles and responsibilities negative impact can be reduced. There are many tools and techniques in the realm of governance, and there are two significant tools that should be used by the distinguished project managers toolbox at the start of a project (or program). These are the RACI Chart and a Governance Document. These are most effective if distributed at a kick-off meeting as it demonstrates a grasp of the project and sets expectations among team members that the Project Manager is on top of the work effort.

Governance Defined

Exhibit 4 – Governance Defined


A RACI (responsible, accountable, consultative, informative) chart identifies the organizational roles that are involved in all critical decisions during the lifecycle of the project. This document will be used throughout situational project management to guide which individual is accountable for resolution of the issue that arises during the work effort. The RACI is an artifact that requires change control during the life of the project as roles and responsibilities may change. Organizations change, people change jobs, and other factors enter into play within the lifecycle and it is important to maintain the name of the accountable individual or the various components.

Governance Document at Kickoff

I have found the one of the most useful tools in my toolbox is a governance document provided at the kick-off. This governance document explains in detail how the project will be managed, how each individual is to report status, what they should do when they are assigned an issue, and how status will be communicated back. The document also explains how the IPMS (Integrated Project Management System) will be used to track project status, issues, risk etc., as well as identifying system generated correspondence (e.g. you get an email when an issue is assigned to you, your boss gets an email if it is past due). I often reference this governance document as situations arise to ensure that all team players understanding the rules of interaction for the work effort. (Davis, nd) .


We have explored several factors that can influence the communication in which a situation arises. The basic component in all of situational Project Management is the individual. The individual brings a wide assortment of internal and external influence into any situation. To best handle any situation, friendly or hostile, the project manager needs to have an appreciation of the mindset of the individual.

The mindset is composed of several components, some genetic and some learned, and is the driver of how an individual approaches a situation. Exhibit 5 presents a model of how an individual mindset is developed. A person develops certain hardwired characteristics throughout their life. Although many are genetic, this model looks at cognitive, or learned, characteristics that are so ingrained in an individual that they are hardwire and would need to be undone, before they could be modified. However, these core traits are constantly being conditioned, or influenced, on several external factors. The combination of the hardwire traits and the ever-changing conditioning causes an individual’s mindset to be formed.

Internal “Hardwired” Traits

Exhibit 5 has a series of traits represented by blue that represent these ‘hardwired traits’. While this is not an exhaustive list, it is a good subset of what composes a mindset.


Represents your core beliefs. These are the basic principles that drive you to succeed as an individual. An emotional investment. Your core values are those strong desires which you will not yield on. They are the bedrock of your life. Your morality. Your other goals and your actions.

Internal “Hardwired” Traits (Davis, 2010)

Exhibit 5 – Internal “Hardwired” Traits (Davis, 2010)


These are the things that make you who you are. It’s an approach to life and how you handle different circumstances. Your way of handling tasks. A sense of humor is one individual trait or the obsession with making sure all acronyms are defined in a glossary.


This is your external action and really is the defining attribute of an individual. Behavior is your action and reaction to all circumstances. In Situational Project Management – behavior may be a critical factor in influencing how you diffuse a hostile situation. For example, a person may say they support a certain idea, but their behavior or body language is far different. They might sigh whenever something they dislike is brought up.

Skills and Capabilities

These are things an individual has learned over the years and helps to define their mindset. For a project manager, it might mean an in-depth understanding of risk mitigation. Through their years of experience and training, they can successfully create a risk register, define the mitigation strategies, and effective manage risk throughout the lifecycle of a project.

External Conditioning

A result of experience and environmental barriers will cause an individual’s mindset to change over time. It is impossible to survive the business world in the 21st century without adopting and adjusting to technical change and business operations models. Exhibit 5 contains examples of influence that will impact an individual’s mindset, and their behavior, as they interact within a situation.


One of the factors that differentiate human beings is their individual life experience. A life experience can influence the mindset. Experience can involve soft skills and technical skills and is often a major component in analysis and problem solving.


The mindset may be influenced by the situation. A person will react differently to getting out of a building if it is on fire as opposed to a fire drill. As the basis of this paper examines – your mindset will drive different behavior based on the situation. The Mrs. Stockwell rules all have a hand in defining the situation. It could be any combination of who, what, when, where, why, and how.


Maturity spans both an individual and an organization. A mature individual is usually defined as a person who does not get overly excited at a situation and distances the ‘people factor’ in the situation. But maturity is also a characteristic of the organization and the business model in which the organization resides. Mature processes and methodology proved a lot of guidance in avoiding, and also resolving, situations as they arise.


Finally, an individual’s mindset is influenced by their personal motivation. Motivation is the internal goal that keeps you going. It is the internal energy that is fueled by inspiration and intensified by passion. It strengthens an individual’s traits and allows an individual to extract “that little extra” in order to succeed.

Khavostism and Historical Baggage

It would be remiss to say that humans do not have previous experience as a factor in determining their mindset toward a situation. The individual can filter decoding based on who is the communicator or on what the communicator is saying.


The word is Russian in original and loosely translated means the tail wagging the dog (khvost is the Russian word for tail). Khavostism refers to “making up your policy in reaction to your enemy”. Have you ever disliked a movie simply because somebody you despise liked it? This behavior is also a factor in situational Project Management. A person may not accept suggestions, feedback, or assignments based on who makes the suggestion. The other person is an adversary!!! And no matter what they say – I am against it.

Historical ‘baggage’

Many ‘hostile situations’ are extensions of previous friction and often are rooted in a controversy outside the existing project. One’s previous experiences often install filters or other distorted perspectives based on previous interactions with individuals or similar initiatives. Historical baggage differs from Khavostism as it is focused more on process or previous experience; Khavostism focuses on the distrust of an individual. Historical baggage could be expressed by the comment: “we’ve tried this before and it didn’t work”.

State of Mind

Regardless of the individual mindset, we all have good days and bad days. People cannot turn off their outside life when they come into the office, nor can they be expected to have no reaction to a work event which did not have a positive outcome as they expected. An individual’s mood or state of mind could have a strong influence on their reaction to a situation and the project manager may take a different approach to communication if one of the individual’s involvement is skewed. Exhibit 6 presents some of the components of an individual’s state of mind.


Mood is one state of mind that will influence a person’s mindset. For various reasons, some days we are less receptive to expectations being missed than others.

Mental Involvement

Some days we have “things on our mind” that prevent us from being totally committed to a situation in a mental capacity. It might be a family member is ill which occupies one’s mind. It could be one’s physical health, one is tired or has a cold. There are many influences and a project manager may decide how to approach a situation based on the mental involvement of the people involved in a situation.

Mind States (Davis, 2010)

Exhibit 6 – Mind States (Davis, 2010

A Situation or Missed Expectation

The source of the ’situation’ is a missed expectation. Whether it is the expectation that a certain deliverable would be done by a certain day, or that a certain deliverable would behave differently than it is, or even if the cost is higher than expected. This paper will use a missed expectation as a synonym for a situation. This section will explore the characteristics of the missed expectation and put it into a context. Based on the context, the project manager may utilize different tools or techniques to handle it.


The environment is the total ecosystem of the business and the state of the project that is being delivered. Where and when things happen is important. A simple analogy is that it is acceptable to wear a swimming suit at the beach, but it would be inappropriate to wear a swimming suit while shoveling snow. In the case – the environment could impact your physical well-being. The environment will also influence social rules and protocols, it would be inappropriate to sing show tunes in a kick off meeting, but it’s ok in the shower.


What is the impact to the overall project completion on the situation? Does it directly challenge the triple constraint, or is it an in-process issue that may influence design or other planning functions. For example, there may be an upfront decision to use a certain server as a test resource for the project. It is not an immediate impact, but will be if certain applications are not moved off within the contact of the project schedule.

Time in the Project

When something happens is very important. A situation at the beginning of a project often does not have the same sense of urgency as a situation toward the end of the project. A good analogy is a baseball team in a pennant race that loses the last game of the season and misses out on the playoff. That one loss is most likely one of 70 losses over the year, but it is seen as the main factor in not making the playoff.

Severity of the item

What is the severity of the situation? Have critical company resources (data , hardware, people) been lost? Has the situation ground all other work to a halt? A project manager will take a different approach if the situation is a ’show stopper’ as opposed to an overall inconvenience.

What is the type of missed expectation

In order to select the appropriate tool and technique, the project manager will need to determine what type of missed expectation is being addressed. This section explores several types of missed expectations and a possible approach to resolving the conflict. Exhibit 7 – Missed Expectations, identifies a subset of mixed expectations.

Who does the work

A disagreement about who should do some work can get into extremely sensitive political and organizational issues. The resolution could influence an organization’s future, funding levels, and overall involvement on the project. The RACI work at the beginning of the project should address these questions, but sometimes as the project evolves there are tough decisions that need to be made. The approach to this situation is covered in Mrs. Stock-well’s Rules. The project manager needs to document the issue, document the perspective of each party, analyse the circumstances list the pros and cons of each alternative and then provide a recommendation to the sponsor and other key stakeholders for approval.

Team Member Behavior

Missed Expectations (Davis, 2010)

Exhibit 7 – Missed Expectations (Davis, 2010)

One of the biggest challenges is a team member who produces good work, is on time, but treats his peers poorly.

Addressing this issue is where all the concepts of an individual’s mindset come into play There is no clear cut solution for this situation, but direct communication with the individual and their immediate superior is required. The course of action will be dictated.

Limited Resource

The project manager will need to refer to the WBS and the associated priorities and timelines. A compromise will need to be negotiated and the impact to schedule will need to be addressed. In some cases it may be possible to get a new resource, but that brings in a whole different set of issues. The point here is that the mindset of the individuals needs to be addressed and the project manager may have to make the decision.

How to Do the Work

If there is a disagreement about how to do something (for example, using one function in the code compared to another, or deciding that an operations process should completely reject an order or put it in a hold status waiting more information) the project manager will need to understand the mindset of each individual. This circumstance is ripe for hard feelings and can have lasting, negative impact if not handled properly. The basic rule of thumb is that the owner of the task owns how it is to be done, but there may be better ways. Again – the Mrs. Stockwell’s rules apply, document, get all perspectives, recommend a solution. The RACI chart should have listed who would be the ultimate decision maker and the governance document should define how issues are resolved.


If it’s a disagreement about whether a plan will work (for example, whether a business idea is worth investing in), some options are: exploring small ways to try out the plan to see if it’s feasible, or having the person who believes in the plan go ahead but without help from the person who doesn’t (and reaping all the rewards if the plan is successful). A Feasibility Study should be completed prior to any project charter and definitely part of a program plan if this project is part of a defined program. But it is most likely that this situation has arisen after the project is started and committed. In this situation – the project manager may have to hit the brakes and stop the project until a feasibility study is completed.


Rules of Thumb

Exhibit 8 provides certain actions a project manager could take based on a situation. There are literally millions of factors that go into what action to take, which requires the project manager to apply Expert Judgement to the situation

Actions Project Manager Can Take

Exhibit 8 – Actions Project Manager Can Take


Exhibit 9 represents a modified communication model. An individual in a communication model is heavily influenced by their individual mindset. The individual’s mindset is influenced by outside factors and will contribute to the decoding of the message from the sender. This mindset has been formed over an entire lifetime and cannot be simply dismissed when dealing with a business situation. Finally, the mood of the individual will influence the various components of the mindset and which trait is dominating at a specific time.

Modified Communication Model (David, 2010)

Exhibit 9 – Modified Communication Model (David, 2010)

As situations rise during the life cycle of a project, the project manager will need to take individual’s mindsets into resolving the problems. When a project manager selects the tool necessary to resolve a problem, consideration of the situation and the mindset of the individual will play a key part in using the proper tool. Understanding the mindset will also help dictate when, where, why, and how to use the tool to break down barriers to completion.



David, D. (nd) Dave Davis Project Governance & Guiding Principles Model. Retrieved from Davis Project Governance Model.pdf.

Davis, D. . (2010, October). Situational Project Management. 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings, Washington D.C. USA

Kapur, G. (2004, August 30) Intelligent DisobedienceComputerWorld. Retrieved from axonomyId=10

Kapur, G. (2006, July) Our Mobile Devices Have Run Amok. CIO Decisions Magazine Retrieved from,291266,sid183_gci1196118,00.html

Project Management Institute (2008) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition Newtown Square, PA:

Wolvin, Andrew March 2010 Listening and Human Communication in the 21st Century. Hoboken, NJ : Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated

© 2010, David L. Davis
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington D.C. USA



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