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Effective Problem Solving for Project Managers

Having been thrown into project management against my wish and totally unprepared, I found myself struggling to deal with problems from day 1. My first big project was a failing project, which I was expected to bring back on track. Having been trained in the medical field I had absolutely no subject matter knowledge in this project, a data infrastructure installation project. I had to learn on my feet and from there I quickly picked up a few tricks on how to approach problems in projects.

Project managers in all levels of the company, doing all kinds of projects both internal and client facing, do encounter problems or issues on a daily basis. As much as we try to capture all risks and prepare for them, there will always be an unexpected problem that no one could have predicted. These unknown-unkowns can be anything from team members going on strike, over political fracas to material or equipment failures and power surges that blow everything up, even though we had “clean power”. Problem solving is an essential skill to handle the issues project managers encounter on a daily basis.

Effective problems solving actually circles around the people element in your project management. How you relate and interact with people has a major impact on how effectively and how quick you can solve problems. One of the reasons why the new PMP exam will include 42% of questions in the people domain is that your stakeholder management, your personal touch and how you build relationships has a major impact on the outcome of your projects.

Build a good foundation with your stakeholders:

1. Build trust in your team from day 1

As you assemble and pull together your team it is of utmost importance to pay attention to building trust. Creating an atmosphere, where the team members feel free to voice their thoughts, concerns and ideas. This will help you in several ways:

· The team will inform you of issues / problems immediately

· The team will feel free to voice concerns and help you identify risks earlier

· The team will contribute and help you find solutions

In my experience it always works best to create an open atmosphere, where everyone contributes honestly and freely. For this you need to be honest and be yourself, dare to be vulnerable and expose when you fail, or do not have a solution yourself. For example in the above mentioned first major project I quickly earned the trust and respect of my team, when I decided to let them teach me about data cabling and data cable terminations. I did this out of a need to quickly get basic subject matter knowledge, but it had the wonderful side effect of helping me bond with the team.

2. Create an open atmosphere, where team members feel free to communicate immediately

This is so important that it deserves its own point. Your team building needs to evolve around creating this atmosphere. The common fear that your team will not listen to you if you admit weakness, lack of knowledge or any other kind of perceived failure is unfounded. In my experience, your team will accept you faster and admire you for your honesty if you are open about these things. Getting back to my previous example of the failing project, the many hours with spend with the team on the construction site, learning from them paid off big time. They loved showing me how to do data cable terminations, how to patch the devices in the cabinet etc. This brought us so close together, that years later we still stay in contact, even though most have most on from the company we worked in. During this interaction the team realized quickly that they could call me any time when a real problem occurred and we always came up with the solutions together.

3. Know your bosses & clients – create relationships

It is much easier to give a client or a superior bad news, if you have built a good relationship with them. Get to know them personally, know what is going on in their lives, share some things with them. I know some people do not believe in getting close to clients or bosses. However during the project you will spend a lot of time with them or communicating to them. You will need this relationship, so that they can trust you and will take any bad news about problems better. You will find, that they will not shut off like they would if you have no relationship. You will be able to discuss solutions more effectively and be able to work with them easier to find your way out of the problem. Hence it is essential to establish yourself as a professional they can rely on, who is honest and will communicate effectively. The personal relationship will give this a warmer level that will make difficult discussions easier to have.

If you build this kind of a foundation you are one step ahead in the game to solve any problem that will arise in your project.

Then when a problem arises you can quickly work on a solution:

4. Think outside the box

Solutions for serious problems may not be found within the normal processes. I remember watching a customer service training video, where the junior person sorting out a major power cutoff in a blizzard, sorted it by hiring a helicopter. This was unheard off and his colleagues thought he’d be sacked. However they did have close timelines for attending to such power cutoffs and the affected area was not reachable by road, due to roads being completely blocked by snow. The customer service officer called his boss and asked for permission, he had all the facts, including costing at his fingertips and argued the case. His boss agreed and the situation was sorted as fast as possible.

I myself, during my Nursing career, often did things, my colleagues thought would cost me my job. I took the risks to save lives and get essential decisions made. In one case we needed a Senior Management decision for a patient admission at 2am in the morning. All others were scare to call the Senior Manager on duty, but I called him, apologized for the disturbance of his sleep, stated my case and the solution and approval was given. The next morning, we took all the relevant paperwork and a full report to the Senior Manager and he gave his approval now in writing.

In another case I had a patient with a medical emergency stuck in South Sudan in a war zone, during the rainy season. The patient was able to sit, but the situation was deteriorating and we needed her in a medical facility. Since the whole area was flooded it was impossible to either fly in or go by road to evacuate the patient. During such situations we would get UN Security to liaise with all the warring factions to ensure safe evacuation of the patient. Now all our discussions with the rebel armies, the Sudanese Government and the UN Staff on the ground stated that the only way in is per helicopter. The HMO I worked for did not cover evacuation by helicopter. However I got the air evacuation provider to get me quotations for hiring a helicopter, discussed this with my Head Office in Nairobi and got permission. The next morning I had a helicopter in the UN airstrip in Lokichokio! We briefed the pilot together with the UN Security Agents and, while in constant contact with the Kenyan and Sudanese Military as well as the Rebel Armies we guided the helicopter pilot over active war zones into the little village where the patient was. Since it was only a little 3 seater helicopter, I was unable to go with him, because the patient was being evacuated with her partner. The team on the ground had the patient ready and waiting and she was transferred from the car that transported her, directly into the helicopter and was brought to my clinic. Even the Doctor I worked with did not believe I managed to get the approvals for this evacuation. However my Senior Managers in Nairobi knew me well, and knew if I asked for a helicopter there was no other way to get the patient out. My relationships with other stakeholders, have often helped me get things arranged much faster and more efficiently with many hands helping. Several of the more adventurous evacuations I have arranged, were only possible due to the help of friends in my network. Whether it was getting cars to illuminate bush air strips at night, or having people help us hold torches to dress wounds in a camp in the middle of nowhere, when other light options were not available. Unless you have made your stakeholders your friends, they will not willingly come and go out of their way to – literally – hold the torch for you.

5. Ask your team for input – have a crisis meeting

You do not need to figure all situations out on your own. Use your team, they have creative ideas and can help you decide if your own ideas are flawed or useful. The old German saying “many hands make light work” also applies for situations where you need to find a solution to your problem.

6. Ask your Network for tips and / or help

Build a Network of other project managers and professionals, or join an existing one, they will be your advisors when you need them. Among the PMI Leadership Institute Master Class Alumni we have a very active whatsapp group with alumni from around the world. We constantly exchange ideas and ask for input and have a very close bond. Since the group has members from around the globe, there is always someone there, awake and ready to answer. Often someone has encountered a similar situation before and will share how they approached it.

Of course you share any information with outsiders in a confidential manner, just stating the issue, not mentioning names and numbers or any other confidential content.

7. Calmly evaluate the alternatives

There will be different options, so you need to analyze them and find a way of elimination, so that you can whittle down to the best solution for your situation. Use your normal decision making tools, like decision tree, SWOT analysis, what-if scenario, Monte Carlo simulation or any other that is suitable in the situation. That way you avoid making emotionally charged decisions you might regret later. Also do not underrate the power of running things by a colleague or Senior Manager to help you figure it out. Often when you say things out loud, it helps you put them in order and make a decision easier. What sounds good on paper or in your brain, may not sound so good when you explain it to someone else. I have often also found that explaining the situation to someone else helps me find the missing link.

Problem solving requires you to really think quickly and come up with solutions, even if they sound like “rogue monkey” ideas (has never been done, can not work….) But the basis for effective problem solving lies firmly in building good relationships, honesty, effective communication and team spirit. Build this foundation from day one and you will be a step ahead when problems occur.

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