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Planning despite uncertainty? How to get your project back on track


As project managers we are used to constantly rethinking and adapting our planning. We do this with more or less effort, depending on the project we have: In a plannable "classic" project with a defined scope, we have more need for adaptation than in an agile project where we sail more on sight. Added to this are gradations and differences in the level of detail. This may be due to the personality of the respective project manager, the client, or the stakeholders involved - some need detail, others just need an overview.

No matter where you fit into this spectrum: there is a plan. Whereby we do not mean the plan as a physical result, as the result of a planning process, but the plan as a common understanding in our heads, which has arisen because we have discussed and thought through the project together with the team and shared our insights and thoughts. This common understanding is very useful and valuable.

With these steps you will master the crisis

In the current situation, with almost cosmic changes and uncertainty due to the COVID 19 pandemic, this is a basis on which we as project teams can build. Since the middle of March, nothing in many organisations and their projects is the way it was before. When a crisis hits us like this, here are some practical and proven steps to get back on track:

  • Remember what you wanted to do. This step makes it clear why planning is such a valuable activity: what was the underlying problem the project was designed to solve? Why is the solution relevant and right? What are the most important results that need to be realized and delivered? What is project success? Which factors or even compromises make success unattainable? You start with these questions.
  • Make sure that what you wanted to do is still worth doing. Is the project still relevant? Is the problem that should be solved still a problem that needs to be tackled urgently? Is the solution still needed?
  • Take stock of what has been achieved so far.T Take stock of what already exists in terms of actual results or completed delivery items. Which delivery items or increments have been accepted? What is finished and usable? What has been started and can be completed? What has been started and must be done again from the beginning?
  • Judge exactly what it takes to move on. This is not about resuming and continuing work that was interrupted. Conditions have changed. Perhaps it needs a new approach or approach, different skills and resources.
  • Clarify the next steps. What is the first thing to do? What comes second? What must be done to achieve the goal?
  • Communicate continuously what is happening. Tell your stakeholders what you know. Tell them what you do not know. Tell them what you are doing to find out. Then tell them that you have found out. And you do that over and over again. Communicate receiver-oriented and as directly as possible, in small steps, on all possible channels. You should not assume that your status reports will be read in crisis situations. Therefore, you should not write any, but talk directly to the people involved.
  • Escalate problems that you cannot solve. Do this appropriately and early on, and without shyness. Escalating does not mean that you have failed, but that you need support. Because you have done everything you could do.
  • Take time to breathe. A crisis project quickly turns into a marathon, and every day feels like a sprint. You should definitely take care of yourself, take time to switch off, and do things that you enjoy doing.

Every project manager will be confronted with crisis situations in the course of his career. Not always as severe as in the current pandemic. But regardless of the size, intensity, and significance of the crisis, the steps described are a good starting point to get our project back on track.

Author: Roland Dörr

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