image by clagnut, flickr artist

project management can be described succinctly in two words: “be prepared to stop.” [looks skyward…]


i’ve talked before about adding wiggle-room into your project schedules in order to handle setbacks, changes in scope, changes in requirements, and more.. this, however, is not that post.

no, this post talks about what to do when you run out of wiggle room.

you can only prevent bad things from happening to a certain extent, and wiggle room will only carry you so far. some things are just entirely out of your control. it could be something as ‘trivial’ as paperwork to get access to a system being held up, or as large as a massive power outage bringing down your servers for three days. these kinds of risks are generally categorized as “known unknowns” or “unknown unknowns.” some you know can happen, like a POC being out of the office on vacation unannounced, but you cannot predict when they might occur. some, however, are entirely unthought of — like litigation being launched against your firm or organization which causes you to halt all progress.

when these types of situations hit, depending on your critical path, your progress can come to a complete stop. you need to have a plan. that plan should include some or all of the following:

include burn work

it’s good to keep certain tasks or kinds of work on the side as work that you can burn. periodic reviews on work already performed, meetings to gather lessons learned to date, administrative work like gardening your team’s wiki or other collaborative spaces — these are all things that you can do that will both benefit the project by adding quality control, and keep you and your people busy. when you can’t make progress on the project itself, there should still be some unscheduled work that you can burn.

take very good notes

perhaps you’re only on the first build of many on a system for a client. you may be working on a program or providing a service that will be sold to a completely new client at the completion of the current project. whatever the case may be, the most important thing you can do when work is halted is take notes. look at what’s going on currently, and try to project similar situations out onto future projects. learn from what you have encountered in order to create better plans for the future.

be transparent with your leadership

have a process in place where you can talk openly with your leadership about what problems are causing your progress to come to a screeching halt. the temptation to lie about your progress to leadership is going to be amazingly high. you don’t want to look bad to your peers… and you certainly don’t want leadership to think you’re incapable of effectively managing a project. so you might think about saying, “we’ve hit a snag, but we’re still on track to meet our goals.” you might think about hiding the “snag” altogether and just say, “our progress is around where we expected to be at this point in time.” but don’t do these things! be open and transparent with your leadership. they might have the muscle you need to move those road blocks out of your way.

sometimes in project management, you can’t yield and be safe; it’s not enough to tap your brakes. in some cases, you need to be prepared to stop.