Why Projects Succeed: Take Corrective Action
By Roger Kastner
“Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.” —Mike Tyson
Maybe you’ve heard the project manager axiom “plan the work, work the plan,” which suggests there’s value in both creating a plan and then closely managing that plan. But to Mike Tyson’s point, shouldn’t you also have a plan for when the original plan unexpectedly doesn’t work?
I’ve had the privilege to speak to over 1,000 practitioners over the years at project management presentations and classes, and in almost every instance I ask each audience to, “raise your hand if you’ve ever been on a project that did not have some unforeseen problem knock the project sideways to the point of putting the objectives at significant risk?” How many hands do you think I’ve seen over the years?
(Well, OK, there was one, but the person was referring to a two-week “project.” So I’ve learned to phrase the question differently.)
So, if 99.9% of the practitioners I’ve spoken with have had something significant and unforeseen knock 100% their projects sideways, of course you would expect the capability of “take corrective action” to be a core expectation of all projects managers, right?
You’d expect it to be a key question in every project manager interview. You’d expect to see the specific capability on every project manager job description. You’d expect to see classes teaching how to “take corrective action” at every professional education outlet. And of course you’d expect to see the capability highlighted in the Project Management Body of Knowledge® (PMBOK), the project management bible, right?
Of course you would… and you would be wrong.
According to version four of the PMBOK, the definition of corrective action is “documented direction for executing the project work to bring expected future performance of the project work in line with the project management plan” and continues to say that when “project results are outside of the control thresholds,” a project manager should document the corrective action taken.
Wow, pretty under-whelming, right? Allow me to paraphrase: “when stuff goes wrong, create a plan, and write that plan down.”
In my experience, taking corrective action is the most important thing a project manager will do in order to guide the project to a successful conclusion. Since every project will have something unforeseen significantly knock the project sideways, every successful project manager will have a plan for when “the plan” doesn’t work.
Here are there steps that the successful project manager should execute when “taking correction action” to get the project back on track to accomplishing the objectives:
Step 1: Solve the Simple Stuff—Embracing the Value of Risk Management
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” —Colin Powell
All projects go sideways, so the successful project manager will be ready to deal with the unforeseeable by having already dealt with the foreseeable.
Proactive Risk Management is the practice of identifying all the known risks, and then assessing each risk in order to prioritize which risks you focus on (i.e., prioritize by likelihood and probability of each risk), and then repeating this process regularly, thereby keeping awareness of the risks throughout the project.
The real value of risk management is eliminating and/or creating a plan for all the significant known unknowns, so the successful project manager has:
- Managed and prevented any known issue from becoming one that threatens the achievement of project objectives;
Earned the confidence from stakeholders that they can “take corrective action,” and;
Created the bandwidth for dealing with that unknown that just rocked the project team’s world.
Having the bandwidth to deal with the “big one” is critical, as sometimes the significant issues that knock the project sideways may go undetected for some time, only exacerbating its impact.
Performing risk management well will also have a positive impact on stakeholder management, because it will increase the level of trust and confidence in the project manager’s abilities to lead the project. Especially when the “big one” hits, the stakeholders will be more likely to allow the project manager to lead, and thereby follow, due to a proven track record for dealing with risks and issues. The successful project manager needs to have all stakeholders participating in positive ways and not questioning the project manager’s abilities to lead the team out of the forest.
Step 2: Know How to Solve the Difficult Stuff—a Repeatable Problem-Solving Framework
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” —H. L. Mencken
All projects go sideways, so the successful project manager will be ready to deal with the unforeseeable by having a repeatable framework for problem solving.
When Jim Lovell said “Houston, we have a problem,” or when Captain Sullenburger called out “Birdstrike,” both captains were staring significant, life-threatening problems in the face. However, a problem is a problem, and regardless of significance, and having a proven, repeatable approach for problem solving is a leader’s and a successful project manager’s best friend.
Years ago, I was in search of a proven, repeatable problem-solving framework, and my search led me to the universal source of knowledge: Wikipedia. And when I searched on problem-solving process, I was thankfully introduced to Alex Osborn (the godfather of brainstorming), and Dr. Sindey J. Parns, and my problem-solving days have been better ever since.
Mr. Osborn and Dr. Parns developed the Creative Problem Solving Process in the 1950s, which has two significant benefits for project managers and consultants because the process recommends:
- Gathering data and performing root-cause analysis before jumping to conclusions, which typically results in solving symptoms
Obtaining stakeholder alignment on the problem statement, ensuring the solution will target the “right” problem as far as all stakeholders are concerned
The Creative Problem Solving Process is fairly simple, yet I’ve used it to help solve the big unforeseen problem on my projects as well as help solve the problem of where to take my wife for dinner. Large and small problems, it works for both. Here are the six steps:
- Objective Finding—what is the goal that will be attained by solving the problem?
Fact Finding—what is the evidence of this problem?
Problem Solving—what is the problem statement, and does everyone agree that this is the problem?
Idea Finding—what are some of the possible solutions to this problem?
Solution Finding—what solution best resolves the problem based on the identified goals?
Acceptance Finding—what are the steps to implement and validate that the solution solved the problem?
Utilizing this repeatable framework for all problems, both known and unknown, will help the successful project manager build stakeholder confidence in his or her ability to handle things when they go wrong, and it will help the project manager train the team to successfully take on problems. The framework also helps in tackling bigger issues too.
Several years back and after being on a client engagement for two weeks, my client asked me what I thought the problem was with his team and their inability to meet expectations. I told him that after being on site only two weeks, I had heard a lot of opinions but hadn’t fully formed my own, not aware that this was part of my scope. The client then proceeded to share his opinion: “project management.”
A couple of months passed, my familiarity with the client’s team grew and while we launched the project, I reflected back on the conversation and decided to perform the first three steps by myself. The goal was simple enough: increase collaboration and productivity amongst the team. For evidence gathering, I interviewed several team members, performing the Five Whys technique for identifying root causes (the Five Whys is a root-cause analysis technique simply named because you ask “Why?” each time a reason is given for a problem, thereby digging deeper toward a root cause for the problem, and by the fifth time you ask “Why?” you are probably pretty close to the root, so the theory goes). Based on the information I gathered, I created a problem statement and then asked the client out for coffee to share the process and data I had gathered.
One of the additional benefits of following the six-step Creative Problem Solving Process is that when presenting the information back to a client or stakeholders, you can walk them through the process, and it’s easy for your audience to follow the bouncing ball. This is exactly what occurred during my conversation with the client, and resulted in a great conversation about what we could do next to engage his management team through steps four through six to create solutions that would achieve our goal from step #1. And yes, over the next three months, we did just that.
Step 3: Don’t Freak Out—Focusing on the Right Thing at the Right Time
“Keep your eyes on the road and hands up on the wheel.” —Jim Morrison
All projects go sideways, so the successful project manager will be ready to deal with the unforeseeable by having a plan and a focus on the big-picture objectives.
I often say “if everyone on the project is freaking out, the project manager should be calm and elevate everyone to the big picture; but if everyone is calm, then the project manager should freak out and be worried about all the things that could go wrong.” Allow me to elaborate on that concept.
When everyone is freaking out, the successful project manager will go big picture with the team and help root problem-solving efforts to the shared goals of the project.
Conversely, when everyone is calm, the successful project manager will use this time to start identifying all the potential areas that might make the project go sideways. So, not exactly the same thing as “if everyone is calm, then freak out,” but you get the picture.
Taking corrective action is such a critical a skill set for delivering successful project outcomes, and it is amazing to me that it is not one of the core elements of every project management curriculum or certification. The successful Project Manager will not only live by “plan the work, work the plan” axiom, they will also “have a plan to re-plan when the plan doesn’t work.”
Having a plan for when the original plan doesn’t work is the cornerstone to project success. The successful project manager must have the skills and abilities to tackle significant project problems, and this requires a willingness to lead the team through the unknown. However, leading the team through the unknown becomes significantly easier with the right tools and processes. And the Creative Problem Solving Process is a great, repeatable framework for successful project managers to lead their teams when the “big one” knocks their projects sideways.
Reprinted with permission from Slalom Consulting - © 2012 Slalom Consulting
Roger Kastner is a Business Architect with Slalom Consulting who is passionate about raising the caliber of project leadership within organizations to maximize the value of projects. You can read more articles from the series on “Why Projects Succeed” here.