Leadership

The role of the project manager in a crisis situation


A project manager I trained years ago called me the other day. It was pleasant to catch up with an old friend, and interesting to hear how his career developed over the years. Unfortunately, he did not just call me to catch up. He had a very specific question, and I'm afraid I didn't have a good answer for him It seems he had just lost his current job because “he did not respond adequately to a production crisis”.

Now, on one hand we could easily dismiss this reason as an obvious scapegoat situation. Someone in the executive ranks felt a need to sacrifice a worker or three so he would not get canned himself. On the other hand we could just say it was this gentleman's general incompetence which eventually lead to his dismissal; after all, how else would a major production problem occur? Both of these readings, although possible, avoid the question. What is a project manager's role in a true production crisis?

In some environments, the project manager hold no role in production at all. He works strictly on development and installation, midwifing the changes but never really worrying about what happens next. His knowledge of the stakeholders, the application, and the logic behind why the system functions the way it does never come into play. The operations and support teams do what they can to keep things running and use their own internal systems to respond to crisis situations. In an ideal world, the project team trained the operations and support staff to handle the situation.

Back in the real world, a project manager who remains with a company usually become involved when “his” products take a dive. He is probably already working on another product release, a patch, or just general maintenance. His network of product specific contacts carries information in from the field, revealing potential problems before the support organization knows anything is wrong. The product vendor or developers probably expect to hear from him on a regular basis, whether they want to or not.

Leveraging all of these resources in a crisis can prove dangerous, even fatal, if handled incorrectly. In essence the project manager has the resources to resolve the issue in a timely fashion. However, by doing so he reveals the fundamental weakness of the matrix approach. The project manager wields both influence and power to affect change; the manager retains the authority to make decisions. Rapidly responding to a crisis does not allow the project manager to maintain the illusion of control required to keep this split from erupting into chaos.

This split leads to what I call the “hovering manager” syndrome. The manager attaches himself to some poor senior developer, trying to influence the worker's decision making process and impress on everyone how grave the situation is. Meanwhile the project manager tries to remove the impediments from his teams path, including sending the manager out to look for left-handed smoke sifters if it seems necessary.

Failing to react, though, can lead to even worse problems. If the project manager simply provides advice, the product could remain down for an extended period of time. The longer it stays down, the more likely it becomes that the executive team will come in search of sacrifices. Once again, the matrix structure will work to the project managers disadvantage – his efforts to get things done will undoubtedly have earned him a number of enemies over the years, leading to his dismissal.

Survival requires walking a very narrow line, deviation from which can lead to disaster. Many project managers I know get sick of it; they leave the profession when flipping burgers or digging ditches sounds better than going to work. Others just hunker down and relish their new roles as project documentation specialists. Most, though, just get right back up and try to walk the line again. I'm not sure if it's a sign of courage or insanity, but I remain in awe of it either way.

5 comments
tech
tech

Sounds like poor role definition from the senior leadership if you're blaming project managers for production problems!

mrkahatr
mrkahatr

These ambiguous situations can be avoided if the PM steps up and takes responsibility for fixing "their" products. Key to strong project management is the ability to foresee problems while they are still small, and off in the future. So, as PM, you should be well aware of problems in the production system that you installed. If the PM truly is better equipped than the manager as described in the article, then it behooves the PM to step up and tell the manager, "Let me handle this, I'll get it fixed for you." If the manager says yes, the PM is then free to succeed or fail. If the manager says no, then the burden is lifted and it becomes the manager's headache. Not to say that you won't get fired, but at least you'll be justified in the belief that you did your best and were screwed as opposed to wondering whether you should have done more. Of course, there is always the possibility that you didn't do that good a job on the original project bringing the new system into production, but then you should be fired anyway when it has problems...;o)

nandi.prasad
nandi.prasad

This is what happens if the PM doesn't get involved both managerially and technically in the project from the begining. A successful PM has to know the existing and potential key stake holders of the project. Only this will make the PM ready to face any situation.

blue-knight
blue-knight

What happens when the system has had changes to procedures\patches after it was turned over for a while? They ask for you to step because it is a crisis and someone does what you tell them, but it is out of date and wrong. It is your back that gets nailed, even if you warned them upfront when they got you involved that it has been over 2 years and your files are out of date. "That is ok, do what you can to help. Anything you do will be appreciated" good words that do not provide any lasting protection.

ProblemSolverSolutionSeeker
ProblemSolverSolutionSeeker

Sometimes politics plays a heavy hand. A few years ago, I saw the most competent person that I have ever worked with get totally screwed over when new management came in, as they were attempting to prove themselves. I was very impressed with how he handled the situation gracefully. He has since move on to bigger things. The important thing is for your friend to take his lumps gracefully and learn the RIGHT things from it. Not to let this 'devastate' him. Perhaps he can looks backwards one day, and see how this turned out to be a good thing. Selah.

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