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Project Crisis… Are you Ready?

Project Crisis - Are you ready?

At some point in your project management career, you’ll need to deal with a project crisis. It may come in one of many forms, and arise for any of a huge range of reasons. It may not be the fault of you and your project team. But, equally, it may be.

So, you need to prepare for a project crisis. And your two priorities are to:

  1. Be able to spot a project crisis coming, and avert it
  2. Deal with a project crisis, if one occurs

PMI Talent Triangle - Technical Project Management

The First Skill of Project Crisis Management
Avert The Crisis

Project Crisis - Are you ready?

Project Crisis – Are you ready?

I study one of the traditional Japanese martial arts. The aim is to use minimal force and effort to subdue your adversary.  If you have to compete, you will be making your life difficult.  As practitioners develop their skill, they learn to practice their techniques at three increasing levels of sophistication and subtlety.

These reflect three levels of increasingly idealised identification of an impending crisis.

Level 1: Go no sen

This represents a defensive counter to an attack.  When something happens, you need to respond quickly and effectively. This is equivalent to being ready to respond as soon as a crisis emerges.

Level 2: Sen no sen

Before the detail of your opponent’s attack is visible, they become physically committed to their attacking move. A more sophisticated student can anticipate the attack and blend with it simultaneously with its launch.  This is called sen no sen and is equivalent to gearing up to respond seamlessly, tackling each aspect of the crisis as it materialises.The crisis never becomes as bad as it could.

Level 3: Sensen no sen

The most skilled practitioners can read the attack even earlier, than this. They respond at the point when their attacker becomes psychologically committed to attacking. This is before their attacker’s body knows how they will attack.  Sensing the intent allows the practitioner to pre-empt the attack and deal with it with minimum effort and maximum control.  This is sensen no sen. For us, this is also a gold-standard. We see the signs of crisis coming and, before it hits, we are already taking steps to counter it.

These levels have analogues in other physical activities. In soccer, we might think of a penalty shot, and ice hockey has the phrase ‘skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.’

So, what are the leading indicators that forewarn of a project crisis?

A Project Crisis will often Happen for Familiar Reasons

There are many familiar reasons and triggers for project crises. Indeed, a lot of them are, to some extent, caused by the project manager; who is either complacent, over-confident, or fails in some way.


  • their predictions and plans
  • human error and human weaknesses
  • random or unpredictable events, like the weather


  • planning
  • systems and processes
  • people


  • notice outside influences
  • predict the possibility of human error/human weaknesses
  • heed warnings

So, the solution to averting a project crisis, lies in:

  1. Careful planning and preparation
  2. Solid processes that limit the scope for human error
  3. And good awareness of what is going on

Processes that Create Good Situational Awareness

As a project manager, your responsibilities include creating processes that help you to

  1. spot the warning signs, and
  2. assess them objectively.

Often, however, it is not your systems that matter, as much as the way you implement them.

Here is an example from my own practice.

Many project managers institute a regular reporting cycle. You gather information from your team leads and synthesize it into a report. A common approach is to start preparing your formal report with your executive summary of the project status: the headlines. This is, after all, how report-writing courses are often taught.

This is, however, dangerous in the context of project reporting. It fosters ‘confirmation bias’.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to easily notice facts and evidence that confirm what we already believe. We do so far more easily than we spot facts that conflict with our expectations. We are often blind to them. And, when we do spot them, we often dismiss those facts as one-off outliers that are either of low significance, or even wrong. This, of course, can lead to you missing the vital indicators of an impending crisis.

Bottom-up Reporting

Instead, you should always assemble your project reports bottom-up. Take all the evidence and data and see what picture it forms. Look for variant data that needs further investigation. More often than not, the big picture matches my expectation (as you’d hope it would). Sometimes not.

Leading Indicators of Project Risk

The other important thing to consider is the metrics you will be monitoring, and what indicators might suggest problems ahead. Here is a table I compiled for my book Risk Happens! (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) (US|UK).

Leading Indicators of Project Risk

Schedule Risk- Minor milestones being missed
- Forecasts of late milestone delivery
- Unclear answers to direct questions about schedule
- Meetings cancelled or rescheduled
- Planned trades union action
- Schedule contingencies being used or exceeded
Budget Risk- Rate-of-spend variances against budget
- Rate-of-spend variances against completion level or product delivery
- Contractor claims for contract variations
- Change requests
- Unplanned changes in supplier/contractor/consultant staff numbers
- Economic indicators turn down, affecting sponsoring organization
- Budget contingencies being used or exceeded
Performance Risk- Staff absence rates
- General staff welfare and morale
- Staff turnover
- Adverse news coverage of contractor or supplier
Scope Risk- New stakeholders emerging
- New technology becoming available
- New industry trends
Quality Risk- Schedule squeeze with no requests for time extensions
- Component failures
- Poor quality of interim deliverables
Governance Risk- Absence of sponsor or project board members from scheduled meetings
- High level personnel changes in the sponsoring organization
- Project board meetings fail to address material matters
- Project board meetings focus is at an inappropriately detailed level
- A lack of concern at senior level for significant risks

Let’s Hear it for Your Intuition

Formal monitoring processes appeal well to your rational, deliberate thinking processes. But often, the warning signs are present, but they are subtle and not easily noticed.  However, our unconscious brain is more than capable of extracting tiny signals from a lot of noise. This is your intuition.

The problem is that sitting at a desk in a busy office, poring over charts, reports and tables is rarely the best time to access your deep unconscious insights. What our brains are good at is working on problems for long periods and finding patterns. Our busy lives, though, are ill-suited to giving us the time to notice the results of our unconscious processing.

Have you ever noticed that you get some of your best ideas and insights when you’re exercising, walking, showering, or daydreaming? Or maybe while you are having your morning coffee? These are not times when your brain is actively working on the problem. Instead, they are times when your brain is quiet, and you are more able to hear the answers that your unconscious has developed over the last few days.

The Next Bend

For this reason, I make it a habit, when working on projects, to apply what I call my weekly ‘Next Bend Process’. This is a simple approach to seeing around the next bend, by deliberately allowing my conscious mind to go into idle mode. It is very simple: I take my notebook and a pen to a café, and order a coffee – and maybe a bun. I don’t take a phone and I don’t take any other distractions. All I task myself with is sitting quietly with my coffee and mulling.

Sometimes ideas come – they usually do. Less often, they are big or momentous ideas that can change the path of part of our project. But they sometimes are. And that makes the whole process worth it.

‘Meeting room 5’

It is also important that there is minimal chance of you getting disturbed. On the project where I first got into this habit, I would list my whereabouts on the team schedule as Meeting Room 5. When I got back one day, it turned out that one of my team had been looking for me and discovered that the offices we were based in had only four meeting rooms. From then on, Meeting Room 5 became code for Do Not Disturb – a status project managers should use sparingly and only with good reason. Being disturbed by team members and stakeholders is mostly what we are there for. It’s how we spot the patterns in the first place!

Horizon Scanning

Horizon Scanning is a process you can use for identifying the risks at the start of or during your project. It is also good for reviewing new risks and maybe impending crises.

You can often avert a future crisis by spotting shifts far enough in advance. And for that, I use the SPECTRES framework. It is a way to inventory changes on your project’s horizon, in a systematic way.

Sources of Risk - The SPECTRES Framework

Sources of Risk – The SPECTRES Framework

Create a Risk Awareness Culture

Perhaps the strongest and most systemic approach to foresee a potential project crisis is to build a strong risk awareness culture for your project.

More valuable still, is a highly risk-aware culture for your organization. This approach embeds risk awareness and risk management processes into every aspect of our work. It does not just see risk management as a separate thread or work-stream within a cluster of project activities, alongside:

  • project planning
  • schedule monitoring
  • stakeholder engagement
  • testing
  • quality control
  • and others.

As project managers, we tend to compartmentalize different aspects of a large project into work-streams, as a way of simplifying the complexity. Often this makes our lives easier, but can make it harder to synthesize the disparate small indicators into a clear understanding of how small effects can come together to create big impacts.

Risk should best be regarded as a process that suffuses everything you do.

The Strategic Role of Project Managers

For this, you need to start seeing your role as a Project Manager as less of an operational manager of people and processes, and more as a strategic leader whose role is constantly scan your environment and speak with your people, to pull together an holistic assessment of the trends underpinning your project.

What is Your Approach to Spotting and Handling a Project Crisis?

We’d be keen to hear different perspectives on this vital topic, and will respond to every comment you make.

This article is adapted from a similar article by the author, which first appeared on

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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