Key Moments in Projects

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.08 March 2006

There are many key moments in projects. What I do during those moments greatly influences the outcome of the project. There is good news here in that we as project managers can learn to recognize these moments and respond well.

I believe a key moment in a project occurs when someone brings me some not-so-good news about the work. This can happen many times in every project. There is a set of activities preceding such a moment:

1. Someone leaves my sight to do work.

2. The person has the right motive (i.e., they want to do well).

3. They give a good effort.

4. They follow the guidelines we are using on the project, but

5. Things don't work the way we would like.

6. They come back to me with status.

This is it: the key moment. What do I say? What do I do? What do I convey? How do I react? My reaction can cause people to charge back to the work with confidence and energy or trudge back to their cubicle and sulk.

I once worked for a man whose classic reply to anything I did was, "Not bad for a first cut." I never liked that. It sounded like he was disappointed with the work, disappointed with me, and he thought I was clueless.

Another reaction was from my supervisor on one of the most important projects I worked in my life. I had worked three straight 20-hour days editing a document. I gave him the updated document each morning and went back to my editing marathons. His reaction after three days was, "I haven't read a word of this all week, but I can tell that you have done the following things wrong...."

The hope drained from my body as I struggled to keep from falling to the floor.

On another occasion I was nearing the completion of a multiyear project. I had suffered what I believed to be a terminal setback. A supervisor smiled at me and said, "Well, this isn't that bad. You will address each item in turn. That will take you a month, and then you will be done."

I recall hopping up from my seat (yes, 30-year-olds can hop when given the right kind of feedback) and walking briskly down the hall to do just what he said I could do.

Because of these and other experiences where I was on both the giving and receiving sides, I react carefully when given not-so-good news. Here are a few tips I have been fortunate to learn:

1. Be honest. Don't tell people things are fine when they are not.

2. Separate the reaction to the news from the reaction to the person. I may be disappointed in what happened, but if the person means well and is doing what we believe is right, I am not disappointed with them.

3. Match the nonspoken reaction to the words. If I say things are fine, I shouldn't be frowning and shaking my head from side to side.

4. React in proportion to the event. I shouldn't explode over a one-day delay and I shouldn't shrug off a $1-million problem.

The best single statement I know to react to not-so-good news is, "I am disappointed with this and I guess you are too. This is a large, medium, or small (you pick the appropriate one) setback. What do we do now?"

Finally, acknowledge good news as well as bad. Nothing has demoralized me so much as a person who only notices bad things. If I mention bad news, I also mention good news. It is out there, and if I allow myself, I will see it.