Well run projects will typically be governed by a decision-making project board, who are informed by a formal monthly report and which is presented by a PM who is able to clearly and unambiguously report on project status and forecast.  This report makes clear what has been done and what is planned in the coming month; reporting progress against the stage milestones and then the milestones within the overall project objectives that have been set out in the execution plan, brief and investment case.

So far so good; but what happens if there is a problem during this cycle.  How do you avoid the project board or project team going into melt down because something goes wrong and there is a vacuum of information or clear action?  Getting an immediate grip of a significant problem and getting it into a shape that management action can be taken is a vital skill for any project team.  You have to avoid everyone getting involved in a manner that can be akin to a feeding frenzy with people nipping in and out and creating more disruption and more confusion.  It is essential to act quickly but to do so in a purposeful, calm and considered manner.

The way to respond in a controlled manner is to have the right tool ready to use and for that you need an Exception Report.  This captures the background, establishes the facts and then sets out the options and their implications to the project objectives.  This is typically then presented in a manner to reflect its urgency; so it could be issued with a conference call or an extraordinary meeting.  It may be sensible to do an initial report to capture the immediate facts and then follow up with a furthermore refined report.  It is essential that the project board know that the PM and the team are dealing with a problem that gives them the confidence to let the team do what is necessary without feeling the need to step in and take over.  The project board have to be able to stand outside the problem and think; if they get involved they become part of the problem and lose impartiality.

There is also a softer behavioural dimension to this.  The project participants have to build trust in each other to do the right things.  The right things being that you do what you are employed or engaged to do; and then react in a calm and measured way if there is an issue.  Behaving in this manner will set the tone for the project.  This does not mean that you won’t act with purpose and urgency – quite the contrary.  By having a defined approach to dealing with a problem means that you have management muscle memory that is fact based and unemotional.  This will help the team control their chimps by having non-emotional reaction to a stressful situation (https://chimpmanagement.com/).  It then means teams learn the management muscle memory to do the right things in the right order in the right way even when under pressure.

There will always be issues that arise despite all best efforts at risk management.  The key is to have an effective approach to catching the issue, establishing the facts and then setting out the options for a clear decision.  Setting out to manage problems by using an Exception Report is a key discipline and a robust response to high pressure situations.

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