Having problems is normal in projects. Why? Because you move on unknown terrains. Project managers sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of problems coming up and the little support from stakeholders* and managers.
Our Projectix has enough and decides that now is the time to put all the problems on the table and get Bigboss and his management team involved in finding solutions. But is this really a good idea? Let’s see what Gurufix thinks about that.
This is in fact not a completely invented story, Disastrus really exists (I just modified names and places). He was a colleague in one of my past jobs.
When problems get overwhelming and the project is completely out of balance, any project manager might feel tempted to involve the stakeholders* in the solution finding. And that is a good idea as such, but a top management meeting, milestone or steering committee is just not the right place to do it.
But what is the way out of the mess?
1.) Get your mindset right
As a project manager your job is to get your project from the starting point to the finish line. That’s it. This includes also solving all the problems on the way. Solving a problem does not mean to ask somebody e.g. the general manager, who has no clue about the details of your project and who’s job is not problem solving but to keep everything run smoothly, to pull the bunny out of the hat and tell you to do this or that and your project is saved.
That is asking too much. And the problem is, when you do it, with him sitting together with all his subordinates, who all think he is God and has a solution to everything, will make him feel absolutely stupid and uncomfortable. So, he will go for the obvious solution and fire you or send you to Siberia or another nice and cosy place, because this is the most obvious solution: The project manager is dim-witted and must be replaced. Period.
Another possible but also not satisfying outcome is, you get some really idiotic suggestions. Why is this bad for you? Well, because now you must try them out and if it doesn’t work, you are the guy or gal who is too incompetent to make it work. So, you’ll lose your reputation and your time. Not good!
To make a long story short: It is your job to present solutions to top management, suggest them the best course of action and let them decide which one they like best.
Let’s see how to approach this.
2.) Produce solutions
Make a list of problems is the easier part, but to come up with solutions is more difficult. Also, I suggest that for each problem you develop 3 solutions. Not 2, not 4, but 3.
Step 1: List all problems
To make a list of all the problems is a good starting point. I suggest that you put the problems in an order of impact to project and urgency. Once this is done you only take care of the top ten percent and leave everything else aside. This will allow you to apply the necessary focus.
Step 2: Brainstorm with your team
Now, get your team involved and first apply the 5 Why method to every problem to get to the root cause. From there, you start to brainstorm solutions. Try to come up with at least 5 or 6, as you might need to discard some of them.
If you are the only person in the project, then start with the 5 Why to get to the root cause. For the problem-solving brainstorming, team up with friends, your spouse, your kids, etc. You need creativity and not technical know-how, so it’s not important whether the people are subject matter experts or not.
Step 3: Develop the best 3 solutions
Now it’s up to you again to sit over the results of the brainstorming, discard solutions that are clearly out of scope and go into detail with the top 3 proposals for each problem. Do not get discouraged if you need the support from a department manager or another high-level executive, even if they have not been so helpful up to now. We’ll sort this out in step 4.
Step 4: Meet the managers and apply pressure
What? I should apply pressure, how can I do that? I am not their boss.
That is something often heard. I shall develop this. When you need the support from a top-level executive for one of the solutions, the first thing is to meet him face to face, so you can safely discuss what is required without any one losing his face when it comes to the apply pressure part.
Now let’s say, you need to have access to an expert from his team. If he refuses, then ask him for another proposal. If he is really not willing to be part of the solution, then you apply pressure along these lines:” Well, I understand, that you cannot support the project. But I strongly believe that this is a valid solution and I will present it in the management committee next week. Perhaps Bigboss can help us with the priorities.”
From my experience, the executive will not give up his position all at once, but when it comes to him responding in front of Bigboss and explain why he cannot support the project, he will have made up his mind and come up with a proposal. Because what he does not want at all is seeming to be part of the problem, which, when happening a bit too often, might gain HIM a ticket to Siberia (see above).
3.) Present the solutions
Now it’s time to present the solutions in front of the management committee. As nobody wants to be confronted with a problem and only one way out, that he or she might not like at all, you present 3 solutions.
It’s all about psychology and has been widely studied by marketing experts all over the world. People are most at ease to choose if presented with 3 solutions. Having much more than 3 leads them to not choosing at all, having less than 3 leads them to thinking “I don’t like this one, nor that one, there must be something else”.
If you want to see how this works just open any website sales page. Always 3 solutions! One cheap basic, one very expensive but luxurious and one best value.
So how do you apply this?
Well, you present all 3 solutions with their main advantages and disadvantages and then you tell them, which one you think is the overall best (best value). Then you ask them to chose and you shut up and wait.
The bets are that they will give you the go for your preferred solution and you can go ahead.
In every project (as well as in any other job) you can come to a point of complete frustration with all the problems showing up. But to put all problems on the table as an ultimate act of desperation in any kind of meeting with the big heads is never a good idea.
When you are responsible for the project and for it’s result, you are also entirely responsible to solve all the problems. This does not mean that you will solve all problems by your own. But you must come up with the solutions.
Now it’s your turn!
I am curious to hear, what are your experiences. Did you already try the “all problems on the table” approach? What was the outcome? Did you get great suggestions from your top management or were their suggestions so idiotic that you wished you’d never asked?
* Stakeholders are any person, group, or organisation with an interest in the project. I shall come back soon with some blog posts on this topic.
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