By Jason O'Neill

Mike Tyson, one of the greatest boxers of all time, was known for a lot of things, but brilliant quotes was not one of them. In this case, he hit the mark, and quite frankly might have been studying project management in his spare time. (Okay, unlikely.)

So what should a Project Manager do when he gets the proverbial punch in the face? Here’s a story to help illustrate.

In a recent product development project that I managed here at KT, I started off doing what all good project managers do. I created a project statement, developed objectives, created a work breakdown structure, got my resources assigned, and set up a schedule. This project was one of many I was managing and required only a moderate portion of my time over a three month period, so it wasn’t sophisticated stuff. So far so good, right?

At this point, everyone was nodding their heads that they knew what to do, and we set off to get it done. But shortly into implementation, I got the sense things weren’t so good. A few of my teammates questioned the project objectives, seemed stressed out about deadlines, and weren’t sure some deliverables could even be achieved. Well, here was one of those punches that Iron Mike was mentioning.

I called a meeting to figure out what was going on. The first ten minutes were a mess: Lots of issues were being brought up, we were bouncing between three or four topics, and it was getting a bit heated! Uh oh.

Thank goodness there are tools available for project managers for just this kind of situation. At Kepner-Tregoe, we use Situation Appraisal (SA). SA as a tool to help identify what is troubling people, especially when they’re having a hard time expressing it and things have gotten emotional.

The first thing I did was ask simple questions that helped slow everyone down and I listed each concern they expressed, one at a time. Then we talked about each concern and made sure it was really clear to everyone what the issue was and that we were actually only talking about one issue and not many. Would you believe we listed 42 individual concerns and this was just a few days into the project??? What would have happened if I hadn’t started asking the right questions?

After agreeing the concerns were clear, we created plans to address each of them, one by one, and then prioritized them based on which would have the greatest impact on us being able to meet our project objectives. Some of those concerns were easily addressed and we just decided who would handle it. Other concerns were more complicated and individuals or small teams were assigned to tackle them.

Amazingly after just about 90 minutes, the team walked out feeling much better about where we were. We all knew what was blocking our path and we had a plan to counter-punch (sorry, I’m sticking with the boxing metaphor) instead of running to our corner.

Project Managers spend a lot of time building their skills on the basics of project management, but sometimes it takes more advanced project management tools to help them through the toughest situations. Thank goodness I had Situation Appraisal. I had a happy team again and a project that was eventually completed on time.

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