We’ve all been there…driving down the road to a destination that is as familiar to us as the back of our hand, when suddenly, and many times without warning, we find ourselves completely lost and not sure what happened. We didn’t see the warning signs and now are completely off-track (even if the GPS says differently).

We’ve driven this journey many times, where everything along the way is familiar; the same landmarks, the same annoying potholes, the construction zones, it is all what we’ve seen before. For a Project Manager (PM) we know this “being-lost” feeling all too well when our project and stakeholder we’ve been driving on-time and on-budget – moving in a straight line – quickly and suddenly gets off track.

The reason for getting lost can be many and varied, but typically it’s either 1) the original project objectives are forgotten and/or changed (aka ‘scope-creep’) or 2) a resource management problem presents itself (on either side of the highway). You need more time and money to get the job done, and the original estimates fall short.

What do you do?
As a PM – aka the driver – you can either throw up your hands in defeat and jump ship OR make some strategic decisions to get your team back on track, whether it’s the same track or a new one. I’ve developed the following five steps that can help you get your project and stakeholder vision back on track.

Stop, Look and Listen!
Wrong Way
First and foremost, stop all activity. Some people are afraid to stop, but this is the only way in which we can truly assess the situation and the need for redirection. If you suddenly realized you were driving down a one-way street the wrong way, what would you do first? When the direction changes you must stop project resources from burning energy and budget ineffectively.

Second, Look! Look for the signs pointing you in the right direction. Take a deep breathe, step back, and even more importantly, step-up and out of the details. This is the only way to truly see your project changes and needs holistically.

The most important step of these is to LISTEN! For some reason we resist change and by resisting, we fall upon deaf ears. Take a long walk if needed, get ‘out of your car’ and don’t panic. Listen to what your client needs and fully embrace the change as opportunity.

Recalculate Your Route
Now that you’ve seen the one-way sign, pulled over and assessed the situation, it’s time to map a new plan. Recalculating means knowing your new destination – be sure to fully understand your client’s new needs, even if they don’t. There is no stupid question so ask as many as you need to and re-ask them to ensure the client agrees and commits to the new destination and the roads in which you’ll take to get there.

Rally the Troops
Now that the dust has settled and the new route is in place, your team is anxiously awaiting your direction and eager to know what their new mission is. Bring the entire team together and review, in detail, the new destination, the new route and the new requirements to ensure the complete project plan is represented. Ask questions to ensure that your troops fully understand their new expectations and roles/responsibilities. Distribute new maps accordingly and let your team begin on their new journey.
Stay on the (newly) Beaten Path
While your new plan (or GPS) is guiding your team forward, it’s important to not go into auto-pilot mode. It is critical to understand not only the current route but staying ahead of any potential changes. Observe the warning signs. Like signs announcing upcoming construction, understand downstream obstacles.

As a PM you need to understand upcoming project detours, like out of office, system downtimes that may potentially impact delivery. Also it is imperative to keep constant communication with the client. Take advantage of daily updates during rocky times, as this is critical. And ensure planned check-points are scheduled – to allow the client to review and officially sign-off on status, direction and in-progress deliverables, reassuring the new route and roads traveled meet your client’s needs and expectations at all times.

And finally, Keep managing
It’s much easier to manage a team when everything’s going well. But a new plan can go out the window when it’s an all-hands-to-the-pumps situation to keep things afloat. The PM needs to talk to the team and make sure everyone is clear on what’s expected of them. Roles and responsibilities can become vague when a new plan is quickly put in place. Morale can also suffer when things go awry as team members feel they haven’t delivered—or, even if they have, people get discouraged when they’re part of a potentially unsuccessful venture. So, don’t forget to acknowledge what is going well. Develop a risk management plan to ensure mitigation and contingency plans are in place. To minimize any additional impacts, identify, plan and try to minimize the chances for these obstacles to occur.
While the roads less traveled typically yields the highest results, it is the flexible – and AGILE – PM that is prepared for any detours, potholes, sinkholes, accidents and construction and eagerly ready to take them head-on. Preparation is key, flexibility/change management is necessary, and calmness amongst the disruption prove to be the best ways to direct traffic and get everyone to their destination safely.

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Further Reading
The Agile+Analytics Project Manager: Props All Around
The Agile+Analytics Project Manager: How to Make Preparation a Priority
PMO: Grace Under Pressure – Managing the Chaos
The Agile+Analytics Project Manager: Calendars Aren’t Just for Meeting