Project Management Under Pressure!

What are the pressure situations you find yourself in when managing a project?  Are you handling the pressure situations or are they handling you?  What’s the best way to avoid pressure situations? 

Working under pressure is when you are in a state of stress or anxiety. You either have too much going on at once or something is being forced on you.

It’s important to not lose your head. The project manager should always stay calm, especially in front of the project team.

Handling stressful situations is all part of the project manager’s job and how effective they are in doing it, reflects their leadership skills.

When in doubt, be confident when you address the pressure situation and refer to your interpersonal skills and project management training!  This might work well in the short term, but what about the long term?

Although experience and practice will help you handle project management pressure situations better, here are some tips on how to identify, address, and avoid (or minimize) pressure situations.

When a project starts it’s a very positive and enjoyable experience!  We discuss what we want to achieve, create the perfect project team, build the perfect project schedule, and even have a project kick-off to celebrate the project being started then.  We then move into the Execution stage where the pressure situations come at you fast and furious!

You find yourself not having enough time get things done.  It seems that everything is in crisis mode.  Issues are piling up and everyone is coming at you at once.  The reality is: people make mistakes and project plans are not perfect, so you need to figure out how to deal with it now and make improvements for the future.  Here are some common project management pressure situations that you may identify with.

The once perfectly balanced Triple Constraint doesn’t even resemble a triangle anymore!

  • Scope is not well defined
  • Scope doesn’t fully cover the sponsor’s requirements
  • Scope had changed since the Charter was approved
  • Missing target dates
  • Baseline schedule is not accurate
  • Cost does not cover the scope
  • Cost estimate is not accurate
  • Cost is over-running the budget

Or maybe its resource performance issues …

  • Resources have not been assigned/hired for the project yet
  • Resources are working on “more important” things
  • People with the right skill sets are not available
  • Project team is not reliable
  • Project team is jaded due to past management experiences
  • Getting additional resources may not help

Or maybe its Sponsor issues …

  • Sponsor/user expectations of deliverables are different from the scope
  • Sponsor is not providing support when issues arise
  • Users are not engaged
  • Project manager not meeting sponsor expectations

Or maybe your project is being derailed …

  • “Contractor doesn’t know what they are doing”
  • “Don’t worry, I’m handling it”
  • “We don’t need to follow the process”
  • “Scope changes when the business changes”
  • “Government regulation is changing”
  • “No one is addressing the issue”
  • “Support issues are higher priority than your project”
  • “Everything is on hold until the enterprise project goes into production”

Any of this sound familiar?

Pressure situations are a part of project management, how you handle them will lessen the blow to the project, your team, and your psyche.  By following these simple seven strategies, you will  get back on track:

  1. Diffuse the pressure situation
  • Break the ice – find the humor in the situation, but don’t lose the importance of the situation
  • Breathe deeply – help the mind to focus away from the tense situation
  • Worry, but for a set time in the future – now is not the time
  • Think like an outsider – helps take some of the emotion out of it
  • Think of something positive – positive thoughts like “this is an amusing situation” or “this will make for a good story later”, etc.

2.  Put things in perspective by understanding the impact

  • Put things in perspective
  • Determine the impact and how much it matters in the end
  • What is the ripple effect?  What change will this pressure situation bring?
  • Could this change impact the result in a positive or negative way? By how much?

3.  Focus on the end goal and how to get there

  • Focus on the end goal and how to get there
  • Understand the project objective and specifics by reading the project contract, SOW, and/or Charter
  • If not currently documented, gather the project scope, deliverables, success criteria, whatever is needed, and document it
  • Understand roles and responsibilities of the project team and stakeholders, since the team gets you to the goal

4.  Categorize situations as Urgent vs. Important and prioritize accordingly

  • Quickly analyze your situations/tasks as either urgent of important; consider budget and visibility
  • Prioritize your tasks – may need manager/sponsor input
  • Start knocking those tasks out!
  • For new requests, ask when they are needed and negotiate when they can be delivered
  • Assign new tasks only when others have been resolved or are on hold
  • Follow up with those folks who were impacted by your prioritization

5.  Address issues head on

  • Deep Breath:  Most project pressure situations are not life or death issues, so don’t panic.  You can do this!
  • Be Objective:  Put on your facts gathering and analytical hat!  Try to determine what the issue is, the root cause, who can help, and possible solutions.
  • Address Head On: Don’t beat around the bush. Work with the people that are responsible for or involved in the situation.  Help lead and guide their efforts until the pressure situation is resolved.  More heads are better than one!

6.  Be transparent and communicate

  • Be transparent – always communicate what’s going on
  • In a calm urgent way, articulate to the sponsor that there is a project issue, why it’s a problem, and what steps will be taken to solve it – they may even help out!
  • Involve the project team, and possibly the stakeholders in the resolution
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!

7. Refer back to project management basics

  • Most pressure situations are caused by the project management methodology not being followed
  • Go back to the project management basics – if you missed a step, it’s never too late to do it and get things back on track

Avoiding or minimizing pressure situations is the ideal for a project.  Start by having the right attitude.  The team can help in avoiding or minimizing the pressure situations, so you will need to:

  • Support the project team and sponsor at all times
  • Ask for their support
  • Do not play the blame game – waste of time, energy, and destroys trust and goodwill
  • Focus on resolving the issue
  • It’s all about the relationships created with your team, stakeholders, and peers – they can quickly get you out of the pressure situation jam
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Always follow the project management processes. They are designed to keep you out of the fire. Adjust them to what the project needs, but never ignore them or unintentionally leave them out.  Plan the work and work the plan!

There will always be pressure situations; especially in project management, so embrace them and learn from them!

Notice how the handling of pressure situations closely resembles the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?  The most effective project managers and leaders are experts in dealing with pressure situations.

The more you work under pressure, the better you will learn how to turn it around to your advantage. Those that can get their projects and teams through pressure situations in one piece, will not only be successful in their careers, but will also be admired leaders.