The Project Reset – Bouncing Back from a Project Crisis

Before the Storm

Storm is coming

Storm is coming (Roberto Pagani)

Projects have a way of distorting people’s perception. When the seductive promises have been made to the almighty directors to get funding, the deadline is closing in (fast), and the development team is not nearly as productive as you’d expected, then desperate measures certainly are close at hand.

I think we’ve heard all the variations by now:

  • The Ostrich: We need this by June, you figure it out!
  • The Compromiser: What about quality? Can’t you fix the bugs later?
  • The General: How many more troopers do you need?
  • The Virgin: Why can’t you just… well, work faster?
  • The Blackmailer: If you won’t come through, we will get shut down.
  • The Pleader: There’s no turning back. We’ve promised this to the higher-ups.
  • The PM/Cruncher: OK, listen up! Everyone is on overtime until we’re back according to plan.


Even “agile projects” (an oxymoron?) will encounter this distorted behavior in managers, because many managers still mentally reside in the carrots-and-sticks camp. They will say: “We’ve reduced all the scope that we can according to agile. Now it’s your turn. We need all of the rest by this date.”. And then they’ll tack on a few of the same arguments we saw above.

Aww, Poor Team

In these situation it is not uncommon for teams to despair. Their motivation will plummet, which of course is counter-productive to what we really want: Motivated, inspired individuals and teams.

In a way, they’re right. It’s not their promise. They feel they are made responsible for someone else’s career move. And frankly, all that psychological violence in the name of “results” kills you a little inside.

On the other hand, most teams are not entirely without blame. Many lack the necessary tools to make reasonable, fact-based prognoses of the future, when needed. Therefore, their own perception of the future is more blurred than it needs to be. Only these last weeks, when it’s become glaringly obvious, have they acknowledged: “F*ck! We’re not gonna make it!”. They may claim they have been saying it all along and that nobody’s been listening. They may have. Only they were speaking very, very quietly.

Often, the teams have a large communication debt, which has decreased trust in the team, making management think they need to act. Their demoes have been few and far apart. There is no tracking of how far they’ve come and how much remains of the journey. Communications with the steering group is similar to that on a poor mobile signal.

What to Do?

I have a general process in this difficult situation. It’s not perfect, but it’s worked a few times. My main tactic is an agile one: Increase collaboration.

The main problem here is not that we’re late but that we have different perspectives and mistrust each other. We urgently need to re-create a shared view of where we are and want to achieve. We need to start building trust in each other again. The best way to do that I know is to work together, first on the plan and then on the work.

Here are my steps for this process:

  1. Gather everyone in a room and get everything up on the table. That’s right, all the accusations and hurt feelings. Have an open discussion on how you feel and why. Don’t forget to mention what you like as well. Give your opinions on what has happened and what you wish for the future. You may want to try an established format for this, e.g. Temperature Reading.
  2. In the next session, get an experienced software coach in to help you find, learn, and discuss all the great ideas, patterns, and solutions that exist out there. Trust me, you are not the first to end up in this state. Reducing scope at every level should be on the list.
  3. Create a new, common process and plan that you all believe in.
    1. You need to change some things in how you work, what are they? Are you creating a common team room? Or are you getting the UX and domain experts into the team? Or moving to one-week iterations?
    2. Create a new, plausible order of things by working backwards. “To reach that date, we’d probably need to do this by that date”, and so on. Listen to everyone, especially the Devil’s advocates. This time, give your plan some slack. You can’t afford to fail again. Keep going until you all agree that it can be done.
  4. Get going again! As soon as possible. Be sure to implement all the changes. This time, insist on true collaboration this time. Be transparent. Tell the world about what happens. Remember, in the minds of people, creating a result in the face of disaster is even better than smooth success.

2 thoughts on “The Project Reset – Bouncing Back from a Project Crisis

  1. Pingback: Four Horrible and Eight Good Ideas in a Project Crisis | The Blogging Terrier | Den bloggande terriern

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