Real Project Crises


We talk blithely about the “crisis” in software development or IT. But most of the time, that’s just projects over schedule, over budget, and under featured. Real project crises are about people.

I heard that one of my clients died today. She was a young-ish project manager. I’d never met her in person (she lived overseas from the US); we had a phone, email, and IM coaching relationship. But I worked with this person. She was a real person to me, even though we’d only met electronically.

I can only imagine how the project team feels. The project team is surely in crisis now, and will probably remain in crisis for a while.

When something devastating occurs to a member of a project team, the entire project team feels it. Some occurrences are easier to manage than others. For example, providing support to a project team member whose spouse is having medical problems may be easier for a team to deal with than if the project team member was having those same problems. And certainly, when a team member dies, that’s truly devastating to a project team.

If you’re in the position of being a manager of team with a real project crisis — a crisis of the human variety — the best thing you can do is show your humanity. Don’t expect people to plod on. That’s nuts. Allow yourself and the team to come to terms with whatever has happened. Without becoming a therapist, you can help each person on the project team accept what’s happened, and determine their own ways of dealing with the problem. Whatever you do, don’t ignore this crisis.

I’m certainly not comfortable discussing death and severe illness with fellow workers. But I do it anyway. I’ve found most people will accept my condolences, offering sympathy, offering help (if that fits for you), or other gestures of sympathy and empathy.

I once worked with a project team that was stuck. They could not make progress on anything. After a couple of days with the team, I asked one of the developers if something was bothering him. He explained that the architect had died suddenly a year ago and no one (in management) had acknowledged it. I spoke one-on-one with each team member, and worked with the management team to hold a memorial type of meeting. It helped, but it took months for that project team to trust their managers again. (If you can ignore death, what else can you ignore?)

Project crises are real. And I hope you don’t experience one on your project. But chances are good that someone will marry, divorce, have children, become sick, or even die. Even though some of these crises are happy ones, they stress the project team. Approach the crisis with humanity and you and your project team will weather it. Ignore it, and the crisis will never end.

3 Replies to “Real Project Crises”

  1. I have experienced this kind of misfortune a few times during my 20+ year career. The first time was at my first job out of college and a technician on our team died in an accident. Our manager was a great mentor to me (before I knew what mentoring was) by the name of Tim Starkey. Tim not only acknowledged the loss, but made a significant statement by personally delivering the news to each of us. We took the afternoon off to hold an unofficial wake, something that would have pleased our deceased co-worker. By his actions, Tim made this a unifying and strengthening experience.

  2. While not as traumatic as death, the Fortune 500 corporation I worked for decided to sell our our manufacturing operation to a third-party vendor. Within the first year, it was shutdown and the work was moved offshore. I “lost” 200+ colleagues, most of whom I’d supervised at some point, some of whom I had become good friends with. My management couldn’t understand why I was so upset, after all, my position as PD project manager was “safe”. Needless to say, I’ve kept the friends, but dumped the company.

  3. Excellent advice, Johanna. I’m managing a small test team for a start-up company and in the space of three months, one team member’s daughter got married, his wife became very ill (and almost died), and both of his parents died, all at a critical project juncture. Acknowledging these crises at the time and working with the team to get through them was absolutely essential and I can’t imagine not doing that. I would add that it’s also important to be aware that even though the initial crisis has passed, there may be a recovery period (especially with grief) that lasts a long time. Being compassionate is a critical skill for a manager to have.

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