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For years, project managers have talked about the tradeoffs between the project controls in Waterfall and the flexibility that Agile tools offer. The need for flexibility has never been clearer, but where does that debate leave us? Here are some tips for managing projects when you are discombobulated.

What we are seeing today feels like the worst of crisis management. Some of it is inevitable. We are, after all, dealing with a quickly spreading, potentially fatal virus with many unknowns.  The good news is that the Smart Projex methodology works in today’s world – where all eyes are singularly focused on an international crisis. Many of the basic principles are well-designed for this moment. Here are some ways:

Focus on the goal line.

I see so much project management talk about the tasks. And I’m not going to say they aren’t important, but we need to get our heads out of the minutia – and focused on the big picture. Why are we doing this project? This particular activity? Is it still important? Does the crisis that we are facing make this project or activity more critical, or completely irrelevant? Is something else in our organization going on that should give us pause?

Understand the critical deadlines.

I see so many project managers spending hours analyzing the critical path. I think a quicker and simpler path is to focus on the critical deadlines.

To get to the point of understanding your critical deadlines, you need to break your project down into the essential activities that are needed to accomplish the project scope. An organization chart graphic will provide clarity by organizing your activities into related groups. I have never advocated that you try to detail every single task at that point. Simply break the project down far enough to estimate the costs for each activity.

From that point, you should identify those activities which cannot be missed and what those deadlines are. Your project that consists of 1000 tasks may have only 3 – 25 really critical deadlines. The fewer true deadlines the better, within reason.  Do you know what they are?

Say your company has 25 open projects spread out amongst your teams. If you know what all of those critical deadlines are across the organization, you can quickly deploy resources in a different way – when appropriate.

Assign a leader, and perhaps, a backup leader to each activity.

I remember conversations with early users of Smart Projex software who thought this was overkill. And sometimes, it may not be needed. But I wanted to allow project managers to go to that extent, because you simply don’t have any way to predict an emergency or a crisis. And I thought it was a simple risk mitigation strategy that would protect organizations if someone was suddenly unable to perform project tasks.

Don’t skip risk planning – even with small projects.

A quick search of “risk planning” on my blog pulls up more blogs than you have time to read right now. But as I’ve said before the key is making regular time to think about, document, and analyze your risks. No one can do that for you. There is just no substitute for risk management. How many people were skipping that step before this crisis hit? Do you wonder how good risk management plans help?  If risk planning is foreign to you, take a look at this short blog on The Secret Sauce Behind Project Risk Management.

Focus on improving teamwork.

For years, I’ve written about the importance of teamwork, communications, and a true concern for the people on your team. It shouldn’t take a deadly virus to force us to care about each other. Are you checking in on your folks? How are you teams communicating? Right now, we are in online mode with most communications done virtually. As handy and helpful as that can be, I hope it doesn’t last forever. We were made for community.

Those who know me understand that there is a time for written communications and a time for  face-to-face talk. Video conferencing is easy, cheap, and available to most of us. Encourage face-to-face talking – particularly for project planning and problem solving. It’s more effective, and in this pandemic arena we face real concerns about the dangers of isolation.

If you don’t know the answer, say so. Don’t make one up.

For years, I have talked about building a culture that encourages people to disclose problems early, to be honest, to offer help, and to not be too quick to judge. And yet, here we are, often seeing the opposite. And it’s not helpful when people are making up answers on the fly.

Pay attention to your customer, as well as other key stakeholders.

It never ceases to amaze me when people make business decisions that weren’t discussed with key stakeholders.  One recent example is the postponement of the French Open, without discussions with players and the ATP. But I’ve also lost count of the number of times that IT development work is done for far too long before releases are reviewed by the ultimate customer. This often creates costly re-work.

Pay attention to your teams. As more and more people learn to work from home, often without the benefit of a dedicated office, and sometimes with young children running around, it can be incredibly challenging to focus. It is critical to remember that your teams may need support.

We’re all operating in crazy times right now but managing projects in a crisis is not a new conversation for me. Don’t let chaos, confusion, and crisis keep you from being effective. Try these tips for managing projects when you are discombobulated.

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