Handling Project Panic – PM mantras guide, Managing clients tips, Management for property construction advice

Handling Project Panic – PM mantras

3 November 2021

Article for e-architect by Romi Sebastian, Senior Project Manager, UAE

Given that Halloween vibes are in the air, I was just reflecting on and reminded of the many panicky and chilling occurrences/experiences I have gone through at various phases/levels of project execution in my 16 years of working. It was habitual to both have a level of anxiety before starting a new project/phase and enjoy the feeling of calm when the project would come to a close and say to myself, ‘Well that wasn’t too bad after all’.

Handling Project Panic – PM mantras

As time passed, managing/executing projects became less scary and in saying so, here are some of the typical panic scenarios and the respective mantras that I have adopted from my experience.

The Project Characters

These are the characters that can create/spread panic when there are project budget overruns or missed deadlines. Mostly placed at the higher ranks (the higher up they are, the more the panic and anxiety created among subordinates) they do not like hearing any bad news, especially without any prior warnings. To keep the panic mode subdued within, I have learnt that it is best to forewarn them of any potential risks and communicate with these characters on a regular basis with honest project updates, whether good or bad. For long term success, one should recognize one’s limitations and be transparent in their reporting.

The Project Programme Fallacy

There is a misconception that if the project team isn’t hitting every milestone on the dates specified, the project is obviously a failure. My take from my years of work is that all stakeholders need to be made aware that the initial project milestones are created weeks/months ahead of time, and not all requirements can be known when a project is launched. The project may still produce good results. Project managers must be clear and transparent when managing stakeholder expectations. Explain to stakeholders that a “project plan” is merely a “projection” of what you expect to happen in the future.

Following an outdated project plan will merely result in failure. Project managers should communicate to stakeholders what they can expect regarding immediate milestones. As soon as a milestone seems to be at risk, this fact must be communicated immediately. Explain the reasons and communicate any new plans based on updated project priorities. One shouldn’t ‘fear’ baseline project programmes but have a control and govern it to keep the project panic buried well under.

The Project Risks – Sudden Scares and adaptive approach

As experience builds up, one will realise that things will go wrong and things will come out of nowhere and create sudden scares/panic. Majority of the times. the trick is trying to ascertain when it will happen, and what form it may take. However, some project risks/issues come up without any warning (especially when everything else seems to going smoothly). In my experience, one needs to keep a record of these as and when they occur. If not this time, the next time these risks pop up, one will know how to target, mitigate and resolve them (lessons learnt). Prioritizing the resolution of sudden risks (impact wise) also aids in the overall mitigation and lessens panic when multiple risks arise within a short span of time.

The ability to use the best mix of planning and structured thinking, while also staying flexible and agile, is the key. Too much planning without being agile, and one may fail to adapt when the situation/risk changes.

Having a back-up plan is good, but be open to adapting. The crux is to adopt a hybrid approach – where the focus is on project value and positive outcomes, and less priority on rigid tools, organizational processes or literal outputs. At times, the strangest and or simplest tool/idea will help kill/mitigate a risk and this comes only when one has an open mind.

While it can be very satisfying to resolve a prickly project issue, we need to also remain vigilant to the possibility that it could recur. If it had been previously identified as a risk, one now has quantitative data regarding its impact which one should use to be better prepared in the future. (lessons learnt).

Project Decision making – stop and reflect method

The skill to pause and reflect before reaching/making a decision is important in times of panic. Any decision making must be reviewed based on one’s current mindset/mood. It’s important to query if one (or one’s superior) would reach the same decision on a different day, i.e. if one (or one’s superior) were in a different frame of mind.

If one feels stressed, upset, exhausted or angry, it is clearly best to avoid making big decisions. Things regularly go wrong when project managers are habitually over-stressed, tired and anxious. An effective approach is prioritising self-care and taking effective short breaks for regular reflection and review.
Having a positive mentality and a well-rested, calm demeanor is a simple, yet often underrated component of good decision making, especially in panicky situations.

The ‘Error free’ Project scenario

We shouldn’t expect project matters to be right or go well every time. We all make poor decisions and assumptions from time to time. What’s most important is to continually reflect on the outcomes of one’s decisions and how one would approach the situation differently in the future. Identify the prejudice one may have had and which part of the decision-making process could be improved, if any.

In an imperfect everchanging world of project construction; continual reflection, transparency and owning/learning from your mistakes will ultimately make you a more effective decision-maker and well-respected project manager/leader.

The Final Assault

Believe me or not, this is exactly how a lot of our projects will feel now and forever. It will never end. Something or the other will keep cropping up no matter how many times you attempt to finish it.

For me, it is this last 10% of a project takes a lot longer – and costs a lot more (than the actual 10% to finish it off).

This is a very important aspect that Project Managers/schedulers should try to remember when calculating earned value throughout the project. I have found it very useful to use/set check gates/milestones to align any earned value estimations for project deliverables.

Being fully aware that the final 10% of the project more often takes more time (about 20% of time and effort) helps to ensure we don’t get nipped at the end with panic button on as usual.

As time passes and we gain experience ( not just what we go through but what we ‘learn’ from what we go through), we will be able to face (and avoid) panic and acquire a level of maturity to not fear but govern and control our varying project scenarios with much ease and optimism. Projects do seem a lot less scary than it used to, believe me.

Romi Sebastian

Romi Sebastian Senior Project Manager, UAE

Romi Sebastian is a Senior Project Manager brought up in the UAE and has been working in the Middle East with top tier firms for the past two decades. He holds a strong interest in the fields of Organic architecture and Bio-Mimetics. Apart from his passions for charcoal rendering, Romi writes on a broad range of subjects for national newspapers, magazines and web-journals.

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