Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

Lindsay works in application support and is responsible for enhancing a sales division application to change how sales commissions are paid. I thought her project was close to completion, but it looked like she had one more hurdle to overcome.

The dilemma
“We’ve run into a major problem,” Lindsay said. “A new software component that is a part of our solution doesn’t work with our version of the browser. The component requires the newer browser version. We were told before that our company was going to move to the newer browser, but now the upgrade has been put on hold for at least six months.”

I asked about her issue-management process.

“First of all, our testing people raised this as a problem as soon as they realized the implications. I notified the client right away. They were upset initially, but then they became engaged in the resolution process. We started looking for alternatives.”

Lindsay’s project team tried these substitute solutions:

  • They attempted to get a version of the component that would run with the older browser, but the vendor didn’t have one.
  • The team asked their company to speed up the upgrade of their browser for the client, but their request was denied because many other applications had not yet been tested with the new browser.
  • They talked to the client about removing the functionality that the component provided, but the client said that the new commission plan wouldn’t work without it.

“We’ve looked at everything we can think of, but we must be overlooking something,” Lindsay said. “What else should we be doing?”

“Have you met with your team and your client to brainstorm other alternatives and impacts?” I asked.

“That’s what we did first,” she said. “We identified the alternatives I already told you about based on what we discussed in that meeting. We’ve also looked at additional alternatives.”

I delivered some bad news to Lindsay: “The issues-management process will help facilitate problem resolution—but only if there is a good alternative to apply. However, it sounds like any options you have remaining are bad ones. At this point, you need to work with your client to make the best of a bad situation.”

Mentor advice
Usually when problems arise on a project, there are good alternatives to solve the problem or implement a workaround. Applying good issues-management techniques will give you the best chance to find a positive resolution. Unfortunately, however, following an issues-management process does not always guarantee success.

Let’s review Lindsay’s situation. First of all, a team member raised the problem as soon as it was discovered. When Lindsay realized that resolving it was outside the scope of her team’s ability, she raised it as a formal project issue and was able to get her client engaged in the resolution process. The entire team met to look at alternatives and came up with a prioritized list. Unfortunately, none of the possibilities resulted in an acceptable solution. Lindsay has done everything she could from a process perspective to proactively resolve the crisis, but the issue was not resolvable.

At this point, Lindsay needs to see whether there are any other ideas that could resolve this successfully. If not, she has one more step to take: identifying the best alternative that causes the least problems going forward. These might include stopping the project and calculating commissions manually or delaying commission payment until an alternative component is found. In any case, the client is not going to be happy with the outcome. But at this point, the best alternative may be the one that inflicts the least pain and damage.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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