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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 h