Crisis Management in Project Management and Agile Delivery
For as far as dawn of civilization, barely any major work had ever been completed, regardless of the approach used in managing the work and delivering the outcome, that did not have any bumps on the road or some crisis to weather through at some part of its life cycle.
Take a look back at your career path and remember the projects and deliveries you either managed or where somehow involved with and you will remember the rough patches and in some case the crisis that you or the people in charge had to navigate through in order to get the product (or outcome) to the other side.
When Agile methodologies where introduced in the 1990s, one major reason for their expanding welcome and adoption, was their ability to respond to turmoils and turbulences in a much faster and more efficient manner than the slower traditional (mostly waterfall) methods.
Their nimble, short-cycled delivery approach with the ability to incorporate market (i.e. customer) feedback into corrective measures and recalibrating and re-aligning the efforts, was also a great maneuvering capability to avoid rough patches and pitfalls on the way.
But even the most Agile and adaptive approaches would still face storms that they need to break through or fall apart and disperse under.
Let’s look at what works for both Waterfall and Agile teams and can help them come out of the crisis in one piece.
- The Lightning in Response to The Storm
Looking for signs of trouble is your first step in forecasting what is showing up in the horizon and will soon be upon you and your team.
Staying sharp and paying attentions to every small signal in a world filled with noise and misinformation and speculation is not easy but you need to establish your way to continuously filtering out as much noise and fishing out as many real signals as you can and keep them on your radar.
If you don’t notice the train that is coming your way to start shifting outside its way soon enough, you will end up having to jump out of its way on the last moment (and running the risk of getting partially or completely hit by it) when it becomes big enough for you to notice.
Your response time to the forecasted Crisis can define your victory out of that upcoming nightmare upon your team or you failure in doing so, and for that you need to see it coming as soon as it starts to line up on a collision path with you.
In Waterfall projects we spend a significant amount of energy and time in identifying risks and trying to brainstorm risk responses and keep checking for new risks, changes in current risks and to assess whether our responses are still valid and sizing properly.
In Agile, there is no formal mechanism for responding to risks, except for being more Agile when it happens and try to maneuver around it, survive the hit and stand up, dust ourselves and moving on. Which is not really a risk response approach.
I have been using a Scrum Risk Management approach, in the form of a light framework overlay, called SCRIM (Scrum Risk Management) that would fill the gap for Scrum teams. (you can read about it here).
Apart from my proposed approach to the world of Scrum, and my own successful history of using it with my teams over the past decade, there is no real approach anywhere else except for “hopefully” surviving the blow and moving on.
- Owning the Crisis
If for any reason it is not possible to dodge that Crisis, then be ready to face it, own it and manage it to your best ability.
If you have a risk response planned for that specific situation or close to it, then activate the response and follow it through. If you had no mitigation planned and no one saw that Crisis coming, then try to respond as fast as you can to manage the impact and set a path for reviving your team’s productivity back up.
Transparency in communications and avoiding sugar coating should be at the center of your response. The time for well wishes is passed and you are dealing with hard hitting facts that can shake your project and your team severely.
The communication to your management, team and stakeholders are the window of opportunity to raise the alarm, call for support and get everyone marching and keeps the rumors to a minimum.
That can trigger any potentially existing counter measures that may exist in your project portfolio, your management or your organization, and funnel them to your team.
Acting swiftly with focus and organizing your team in identification of the root cause of the Crisis and the response brainstorming and execution is your next step.
You have just been surprised and you might as well return the favor in responding quickly and to the point to the threat that is endangering your team’s ability to deliver, get crushed by your swift and powerful response.
- Lead through the Mayhem
Become the leader you wish you had during the last crisis where you were not in charge of managing the work.
It is okay be afraid of the Crisis, that keeps you awake, aware and agile in taking it quite seriously. Overconfidence is the real enemy in responding to Crisis as it distorts your sizing ability and aiming accuracy in hitting back at the Crisis.
Your appreciation of the gravity of the situation and realistic view on the issue should reflect out from you in the form of a well composed, smiling yet focused leader who holds the big picture in one hand and the response plan in another.
Your realistic view into the Crisis combined with your strength of optimism and firm standing will give your team the strong ground to stand on and the material to build a strong response on that foundation.
Use your team’s brain power to aggregate the best ideas and devise a multi-plan response to hack back at the Crisis till it is pushed out of the way. Your talent in people’s management comes to your help in orchestrating the best response to the Crisis and containing its power and turning it into a learning experience from which your team can come to the top.
- Tame the Paper Tiger
When Crisis hits, stakeholders, being human and coming from a variety of level of professional maturity and background, would show a spectrum of behaviors and reactions. Many of them can be unsavory and hurt your team through a blaming game and finger pointing practice.
While, as the Project Manager or Agile lead (or whatever fancy title you would have), you are going to show an open communication channel and acceptance of conflicting opinions, you should show zero tolerance for the pointing and yelling games.
At the core of such behavior sits a broken, scared little “Paper Tiger” persona that tries to find solace in offloading the burden of recovery that suddenly feels heavy on their flimsy shoulders.
We do not let that take hold and disperse our power of focus and collaboration as one body and one mind.
Remember: People do NOT fail. It is the process that has failed them and when that happens it is because it was not solid enough to bounce off the Crisis and continue. This is NOT a time to fix people, but to find what are the weaknesses of the process and brainstorm on how to fix it to avoid a repeat scenario.
- What doesn’t kill you … can turn you into something new!
In response to the Crisis we may discover inadequacy in our existing processes, pipelines and production flows.
Surviving through and existing the day after the storm may require us to evolve, improve and upgrade to a much higher and stronger stance, never experienced by our team or our organization before.
Changing in response to storms is common and sometimes the degree of this evolution is so significance it can redefine our entire setup and structure into something new.
Remember that during major shifts in environment, it is not the strongest of the spices that survives, but the most flexible in adaption to the new paradigm.
When becoming stronger is the only choice you are afforded with, then become stronger!
As much as we frown upon Change in Waterfall, and have an entire “Change Management” process in play to decide what to do with the shifting paradigms and how to recalibrate our efforts to still move towards our target (which often leads to a lot or rework and writing off done work), Agile methods on the other hand thrive on harnessing the Change to the benefit of the clients.
It is in Agile methods’ nature to constantly “Inspect and Adapt” and re-align their efforts in short delivery and market feedback collection cycles, to do that in the shortest and cheapest way possible.
Regardless of what methodology is being practiced, when the Crisis hits, you would need to tapping into resources and capabilities of your chosen methodology is second to relying on the strength of your team in braving the storm.
From a comprehensive Risk Management process (Waterfall) to a Super Flexible and Adaptive process (Agile), the core practice of what you need to do to own and respond to the received blow, stays the same and depends on you and your team to see it through and land on your feet on the other side.
The more your leadership has led to strengthening your team with self-confidence, self-organization and self-discipline, the better your chance of taking on the challenge as one solid, strong, yet adaptive body and surviving to tell the tale.
Value your team as your one true asset and invest in empowering them so you can rely on their ability to walk through the storm with you.
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Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach, CIO and Chief Data Scientist
Arman Kamran is an internationally recognized executive leader and enterprise transition coach in Scaled Agile Delivery of Customer-Centric Digital Products with over 20 years of experience in leading teams in private (Fortune 500) and public sectors in delivery of over $1 billion worth of solutions, through cultivating, coaching and training their in-house expertise on Lean/Agile/DevOps practices, leading them through their enterprise transformation, and raising the quality and predictability of their Product Delivery Pipelines.
Arman also serves as the Chief Technology Officer of Prima Recon Machine Intelligence, a global AI solutions software powerhouse with operations in US (Palo Alto, Silicon Valley), Canada (Toronto) and UK (Glasgow).