Marianne Hang, Senior Project Manager
October 21, 2018
Managing a Shitstorm
Have you ever had a project turn into a shitstorm, with no option but to manage your way out of it? The term “shitstorm” is an actual business term defined in Wikipedia as “a situation marked by violent controversy. I’m sure we’ve all been in a shitstorm and we know we’re in one when it happens. However, we’re afraid to admit our tragic ordeal – especially in a blog where it isn’t professional to use the “s” word. But I’ve been in the project management space too long to be covering up organizational incompetency so it’s time to deal with the truth of the matter. Thus, it’s my duty to call it the way I see it and I believe that people can handle the terminology of a “shitstorm” just fine, as can your stakeholders, clients, governance, and Project Team. I’m sure everyone has experienced a shitstorm somewhere along the spectrum of their career. We must be able to recognize a shitstorm rather than dismiss serious situations as not being serious, as not needing to be carefully managed, or not having negative impact. It’s my goal to help you be a successful Project Manager even when everything is going to hell.
A Project Manager’s Perspective of a Shitstorm
During my long career in the project management space some truly hair-raising situations have presented themselves, which could be referred to as nothing else but shitstorms. In these situations I’m expected to break up the riot and establish some peace before the situation gets entirely out of control and the project is irredeemable. My experience in restoring order and achieving success during shitstorms has allowed me to tally up some points for project rescues. I’ve seen it all: fighting, politics, firings, massive reorganizations, bullying, destructive business impacts, economic downturns, sabotage, harassment, and many other forms of controversy. I’ve realized that in project management, these are real challenges and not just odd occurrences. In some organizations and specific economic situations, shitstorms are predictable occurrences. At any time, dealing with fires, issues, and politics, fixing processes, and managing business-critical change can demand the Project Manager’s attention. Let’s face it, shitstorms are named as such for a reason, and a lot of time and calculated effort will be required to flush those nasty and debilitating problems down the toilet.
A capable Project Manager is required to successfully manage an initiative during trying times of never ending challenge, and keep the Teams and stakeholders afloat. Thus, as a Project Manager, you not only develop a project management foundation, you also promote your emergency project management skills. The project management skills you develop during a shitstorm will elevate your confidence and reputation, not to mention demand for your popular project management capabilities. The project management role must support a constantly evolving business environment where the need for finely-honed leadership skills is expected, while the complexity of projects is rising. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but simple standard textbook projects are a thing of the past, while shitstorms are the new norm.
I pity the Project Manager who downplays a serious situation, fails to prepare for it, and doesn’t alert their governance and stakeholders to the situation before it becomes an unstoppable tsunami. Many Project Managers set themselves and their Teams up to over promise and under deliver. My project management alarm rings whenever someone on my Team says “Don’t worry, it will be OK” in the absence of any rational explanation when the facts are clearly showing otherwise. Avoiding reality and making false commentary raises suspicion among stakeholders, clients, and governance. Everyone needs to know the truth, while Project Managers maintain sanity and calm everyone down. Holding information back and not dealing with the right issues is a great way to lose credibility. Furthermore, it demonstrates immaturity in the project management space and puts the judgement of the leadership team in question. Bringing calm and comfort in the storm is accomplished by acknowledging the facts and providing well thought out recommendations for remediation, as well as a plan for getting out of the storm and to a safer harbor. As the Project Manager, you’re the lead in that process and everyone is looking to you – not necessarily for all the answers but definitely for modeling straight talk, clear thinking, knowing who to get in the room to figure out the path forward, and working the plan toward implementation.
How to Calm a Shitstorm
So who do you get in the war room first? The IT Architect is a good place to start. This person has their finger on the pulse of the technical situation for the project. They’re going to know what’s contributing to the storm on the technical side of things and if they’re also business savvy, they’ll have a good idea of what’s contributing to the storm on the non-technical side – the people and process challenges. By working with your IT Architect to identify issues and dilemmas regarding people, processes, and technology, you’ll get a sense of what’s causing the storm. Break the storm down into three components – people, process, and technology – and communicate issues and problems accordingly. The business understands these three components of the project and will appreciate this categorization of issues and problems in managing the storm. This break down also provides the Project Team with an excellent starting place for developing the solutions, understanding the dependencies, and completing a remediation plan.
Next up in the war room is your Business Lead. This person gives the business (which is your client) view of the storm, identifies what’s contributing to it, assesses what the current impact is, forecasts what’s likely to happen if the storm continues unabated, and defines what is needed from a business point of view to address the situation. This person should also be in a good position to share knowledge of the political situation responsible for causing the storm and provide recommendations for successfully dealing with political obstacles. Understanding the political environment is vital because in some storms, no matter what technical solutions are put forward to remedy the situation, the project as a whole may still fail if there are extenuating political reasons that support the storm instead of project success.
At this point, you need to get your Project Sponsor involved directly after meeting with your trusted Architect and Business Lead. Together with your Architect and Business Lead, build a high level presentation for your Sponsor that illustrates both the technical and business storm perspectives, and the recommended paths forward to remediation from both points of view. Remember, address the three areas of impact – people, process, and technology. Think of the Architect, Business Lead, and Sponsor as key players in a SWOT team and do not share your presentation with others until you have a plan of attack. It’s important to get the right people engaged at the right time and ensure governance alignment to the go forward plan before communicating that plan publically. While you engage the Architect, Business Lead, and Sponsor, let stakeholders, clients, and your Project Team know that you are doing so and provide a timeline for when you’ll be reporting back. In this way, you maintain open communication while encouraging people to not run in different directions, which will just waste time. Promote confidence in the process, focus on issue escalation, and stick to the timelines you provide about getting back to people. This is important when you can’t share details but still need to instill calm, confidence, and trust.
Change Management Is Critical in a Shitstorm
Once you’ve met with your Architect, Business Lead, and Sponsor, consider whether you need to involve or request the support of an Organizational Change Management (OCM) Lead. Engagement of this resource depends on availability and also on the severity of the shitstorm; the higher the level of project complexity and the shittier the shitstorm, the greater the need for an OCM Lead. For many projects, the Project Manager is expected to fill the role of Change Manager. If this is this case, educate yourself quickly on change management best practices, understand this skill set, and find a mentor to help you along, even if it’s behind the scenes, as a way to manage and mitigate OCM risk around the storm.
Implementing a Plan to Resolve the Shitstorm
After meeting with your Sponsor, who should then follow up by meeting with other relevant levels of governance on behalf of the project, clarify both the technical and business perspectives of the storm management plan with your Architect and Business Lead, and schedule a meeting with your Project Team. They are the first group to validate the storm management plan and require that knowledge at a different level of detail than other stakeholder groups. Furthermore, they’ll be able to help build out the plan, identify risks and mitigations, present alternative solutions, and enhance the support circle of people involved in setting things up right. Request that they not communicate with other stakeholder groups until those meetings are set, in order to ensure no misunderstandings fuel the shitstorm. Next up, schedule a meeting with your technical stakeholder group to bring them into the fold and ensure they are aligned with the plan, as well as positioned to work with the Project Team on technical solutioning details according to the plan. Following the technical meeting, schedule a meeting with your business stakeholder groups to bring them into the loop, present the final go forward plan, advise them that the plan is sanctioned by governance that included the Business Lead (to confirm that business interests have been represented), and focus on how the plan will lead to getting out of the storm and onto the shore. Be prepared to be challenged; people are still in the head space of the shitstorm and you haven’t actually gotten them to the shore yet. Don’t let that sway you. Understand and respect that people need time to embrace the go forward plan, but also make it clear that there is a plan and everyone is expected to follow and support it. These meetings should occur quickly and near back-to-back to ensure that the timely response you promised is delivered, information isn’t shared and misinterpreted in between meetings, and no one feels like they were the last to be informed. It is vital to work closely with your Architect and Business Lead at this time, and present a united front at the meetings. There can be no wandering in different directions or perceived lack of alignment. No egos, no challenging one another in public, and no grandstanding will be tolerated. Getting to this point is a team effort and getting out of the shitstorm will require the same team. There is also power in numbers, so use that to help drive home calm and confidence, and continuously communicate the need for everyone to pull together. All three project leads – Project Manager, Architect, and Business Lead – must work together in the meetings, as well as outside of the meetings to shut down water cooler backbiting, fear mongering, gossip, ad hoc solutioning, incorrect information sharing, and lack of information.
By this point, you’ve created a new and better foundation for the project and moved the situation from a raging shitstorm to a tamed project under control. The Project Manager must keep a tight rein on the situation because storms can spin out of control if you ignore obvious signals or assume things are being managed instead of confirming they are. But together with your Architect and Business Lead, you have the skills, maturity, and experience to keep things on track and stick to the plan that will navigate you all to safer shores. With this go forward plan, you’ll also be able to recognize future storm clouds rising in advance and make navigational course adjustments earlier on in order to steer safely away from an upcoming shitstorm.
Ms. Marianne Hang is a Senior Project Manager affiliated with IT Architects in Calgary, Alberta. IT Architects (www.itarchitects.ca) is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, Marianne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 403-815-7505.