How is a project manager like a storm chaser? Some may say both look for trouble but the answer is closer to how they manage themselves and their team when chaos swirls around them. Here’s some advice for staying calm in the eye of the storm.
Storm chasers are professionals (or should be) who watch for tornados and hurricanes during the summer months in the southern and Midwestern United States. Their goal is to get close enough to a storm to photograph and video it without incurring any harm to themselves. Some do it for the thrill, while others chase storms for legitimate research purposes. Though most are trained and experienced in what they do, they can in no way control the direction the storm will take as, without warning, storms can often veer off in a new direction.
One way to view the situation is as a high-stakes ‘cat and mouse’ game, with the participants risking injury or even death if they get caught in the path of the storm. To mitigate the risks, storm chasers rely on inputs such as seismic data and weather predictions, using modern technology and expert judgement for the planning and execution of their work.
What does this have to do with program and project management? Well, aside from the obvious dangers that storm chasers face, one could say that these professionals deal with a high degree of complexity and ambiguity, much like many project and program managers.
There is another similarity to which we will draw a comparison, having to do with the internal structure of the storm. Inside the tornados/hurricanes the storm chasers are chasing there is a calm environment known as ‘the eye of the storm’. As the program or project manager, you must hypothetically keep yourself and your team positioned in a calm environment, even if and when serious issues arise and various chaotic events are ‘swirling’ around you. What steps and actions can you take in order to shield your team from the chaos, and ensure they stay in the calm eye of the storm when times are difficult?
Although every situation on a program or a project is different, below are our principle suggestions for dealing with the difficult situations on projects and programs, garnered from our combined experience:
Follow the plans
At the start of the program or project, under your guidance, your team will have developed several project plans—risk, communication, schedule, success, cost, implementation, iteration, quality, training, perhaps safety, etc—that, at the time they were created, were your team’s best assessment of the work to be done and how it should be performed.
We also assume that your customers and stakeholders approved your plans so that you could begin to execute them. It is important to continually refer to those plans as your baseline for documenting gaps or deviations. Even simple things such as tracking milestone dates and showing missed or updated milestones are important to managing the plans.
If your team misses a milestone, for example, keep it in the document but mark it as ‘crossed out’ and insert the new date beneath the original milestone, or re-baseline in the schedule to reflect both the previous agreed date, and the new. This approach will keep all parties aware of and in tune with the plan versus reality.