Is Your Project on Fire? Tips to Navigate the Urgent Crisis in Your Project

Project and fire are not the terms I like to hear together. So you may be thinking what do they have to do with each other? Well, participate and lead a few projects and you will find the inevitable “fire” to happen. Some of the common causes of the fire are a major issue found not planned for, crisis found in testing, something unexpected breaks, management comes in with a demand to meet that there is not time, resources much chance in delivering on. Sound familiar?

Urgent is a word used frequently in personal and professional life as trying to get work done through other people creates so many reasons that we must impart the criticality, importance, timing for our requests to be completed. Is this constant drive to solve the crisis needed? Some theories are projects that are well run avoid crisis and other managers believe it is there job to sustain this type of urgent work environment as more productive to complete projects. I believe there is a time and place for urgent culture but not sustainable continuously. defines “Urgent” as a


Compelling or requiring immediate action or attention; imperative; pressing: an urgent matter.


Insistent or earnest in solicitation; importunate, as a person: an urgent pleader.


Expressed with insistence, as requests or appeals: an urgent tone of voice.

Taking the meaning of urgent and thinking of typical situations at home, provides a few examples that can be applied in workplace. You can have grand ideas for remodeling your house or getting in shape, but if you have a storm that damages your house you drop everything and put it out. What choice do you have? Naturally, the crisis moves to the top of the list despite you may have had plans to take the kids somewhere, travel for business, and make an important family function. Naturally, this is the best choice as the problem has to be solved or it will get worse so your immediate attention is required. The problem is most businesses and project managers act as if the organizations are on fire, most of the time. If you allow the problems to continue with fire fighting, they add up and your contribution is firefighting that defines your accomplishments and skill at managing a project. A career putting out fires never leads to the goal you had in mind all along. It is living reactively not proactively. If you are not working your plan you are falling into someone else’s plan and the result will not be what you wanted. Taking control and leadership as the project manager requires that you take control, put out the fire and proactively lay the right ground work to prevent a fire from burning out of control. The key to “Making Things Happen” is to be in control and know how to lead through the fire and normalcy can resume executing the program.

How to put out some common “fire” situations:

A manager who creates continual crisis

This is an opportunity that you need to learn what high level objectives are. Are they changing their mind, are they being influenced by customer, investors, is it lack of clarity for what they want done? A strategy to manage this is to get a view of the external and internal environment. Look forward and develop a plan to anticipate some of the twists, manager concerns so you can agree on strategy and how you will communicate with the individual. Map out what this looks like, where change points are, what impacts are and get on the same page with manager so impacts are understood of their requests on project.

Something breaks, fails to pass required check

Whether you are working on a construction project and something is found in digging the foundation that halts progress or you are developing a new product and regulatory doesn’t pass, in your industry you have a similar gotcha that grinds work to a halt. This a good chance to gather the team in area impacted and determine can it be fixed, at what cost, how much time will it take, what is chance at measure fixing problem, what other alternatives are there. This is critical crisis problem solving. It will vary issue if there is a quick fix or in some cases minimum time must pass to have another inspection, qualification. Either way, there is a cost impact to your business so how effectively you manage quick action plan will make the difference in making it happen and get work done successfully.

If you work in an urgent-only culture, the only solution is to make the right things urgent so you can survive and ensure that team is working to higher level goals. As a leader, your sanity and the endurance of your team will require tough decisions, learning to say no, manage the deliverable and stay on track. It is easy to be derailed but the difference between surviving and thriving will be your response to the fires and laying the groundwork to prevent the fire at all. What other strategies do you use?


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