When working on a project, the most important thing to remember is that things can and do go wrong – even when they are very well managed.
This may result from human error or overreliance on technology, but the key to being a successful project manager is how you react and resolve an issue and the time it takes to respond.
Being positive and addressing the issue as soon as possible is in many ways what we are paid to do, using our leadership and management skills. In this context, mistakes should be regarded as a learning experience: as project managers, we can sometimes learn more from something going wrong than when it goes smoothly.
However, it is important to understand why the situation occurred, as well as whether and how it could have been avoided.
Equally, it is always best to avoid a knee-jerk response. While addressing obvious health and safety issues promptly is important, any time taken to consult and think through the situation will rarely be wasted.
Expecting people to take responsibility is different to blaming them, yet people tend to look to protect themselves.
This is because, in the heat of the moment, it is very easy for emotions to take over. It is important that the project manager does not succumb to such a reaction.
Blame in itself is unhelpful: all it will achieve is to drive people into defensive
A blame culture, becoming overemotional and not giving issues due consideration cloud the situation and will be detrimental in seeking a resolution.
The challenge for the project manager is to maintain a functioning, efficient team capable of developing solutions to the issue – unless of course the problem lies with the team Itself. If this is the case, then the project manager will have to be objective in assessing the issue and taking a robust approach to restructuring the team after careful deliberation.
Also beware of the temptation to hide behind the documents – the reaction can be to reach for the contract, an action often perceived as allocating blame, and that again will drive people apart rather than contribute to resolving the issue. There may well be notices or
similar documents to issue; however, by making it clear that, as project manager, you are simply implementing the terms of any contract and advising people of their obligations – and your own – the likelihood of this reaction can be reduced.
Have the conversation
Never ignore an issue: even minor disruptions can escalate rapidly if they are not addressed when they occur.
Early reporting to the client is equally important, because it shows that you are aware of what is happening and that you are proactively looking for a way to address it. Such conversations may not be easy, but they will only become more difficult over time. Equally, early disclosure will give the client confidence that you are on top of things and keeping them informed.
Your client will want to know what has happened and how the team plans to react and develop a solution. Depending on the circumstances, the client may decide to change the brief or the objectives of the project.
Often there is more than one solution to a situation, and balanced evaluation of the options will pay dividends in the long run. Give your client options: what seems the most obvious way to set the project back on track may not be the way to go if the client sees a different opportunity.
Generally, it is best to keep an open mind. In one highly publicised incident, a facade collapsed during the investigation stage of a refurbishment project, but rather than simply have it restored, the client agreed to a more substantial renovation, with completion resulting in a much improved asset overall.
Handling such situations properly is important, not only to resolve the issue itself but also to maintain team morale and the impetus that will continue to complete the project.
When a project goes well it is not always clear why. However, when things go wrong it can be obvious where the cause lies. Understanding why a mistake has occurred and learning lessons is vital – using this knowledge to inform subsequent projects is the way most of us gain our experience.
Andrew McSmythurs is Director of McSmythurs Consulting
This article was first published in RICS Construction Journal (June/July 2017)
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