3 Steps to Handle Emergency Projects

solving problems

Your boss calls you in.

Upper management has decided a crisis is brewing and the problem needs fixing immediately.

You are chosen.

What was your response?

For many of us, the response is to say, “Of course,” and leave the office wondering how we’re going to fix this. Then we go back to our desk and sit for a moment.

Then we turn to our coworker and say something like, “You’ll never believe what they just asked me to do!” Venting ensues.

Complaining to your coworker probably didn’t help the situation. Here are three steps to take control of situation calmly and efficiently.

1. Ask Questions

Yes, I know. You were summarily dismissed after your assignment. Let’s keep in mind that your boss probably wasn’t any more excited about this new assignment than you were.

Give him or her some time to process. In the meantime, start a list of questions that you need to know before moving forward.

  • What exactly are the expectations?
  • What does success look like to your boss — and your boss’ boss?
  • Why is this a crisis? Who says and why?
  • When does success need to be accomplished?
  • Who is on the team to accomplish this?
  • Who can you go to for any assistance?
  • Who is your main internal customer?
  • Do you have any budget constraints?

Set up this meeting with your boss within about 24 hours of the assignment. Depending on the manager, it may be helpful to give them the questions in advance. This gives your manager time to process the new work and gives you time to prepare.

2. Create a Plan

At this point, it’s probably pretty down and dirty — not a formal MS Project list of tasks, but a list of the actions that need to happen to get to the objective. You should know who you’re actually doing this work for — it may not be your manager.

Get some time with your customer and go over the plan with them. Reiterate what the end goal is — what does success look like? Get their buy-in, particularly on the deadline.

Many upper managers are unaware of how long work actually takes. Even a notional plan can make them aware of when they will get their result.

In my experience, they usually want everything perfect tomorrow. Secretly, they know that can’t happen, but they don’t know how long it takes. Tell them.

3. Execute Your Plan

Once your customer and you agree on the time frames and the task list, formalize it so you and your team knows what to do when. Then execute.

Remember, the most important thing about accomplishing work in most organizations is communication. Keep your manager informed about your progress as well as your internal customer or upper manager. If you don’t know exactly how to communicate, ask.

Managers are busy people. Email may or may not be the best way to keep in touch. For some, a voicemail once per week does the trick. For others, a daily instant message with the day’s progress makes them feel better. This is your opportunity to learn how to manage your managers.

We all know that the best laid plans, blah, blah. Keep communicating and working issues until you have your final goal. Then celebrate!

Even if it’s only bakery cookies for the team at your final meeting, don’t let everyone go back to their desk without some kind of recognition. Encourage the internal customer to be there and join in your success. Very little work gets done without the effort of an entire team.

Final Thoughts

Calmly and efficiently putting together a plan for that critical work assignment shows you can be counted on in a crisis. When given a new assignment, take a deep breath and begin gathering the information you need to prepare a plan and accomplish your result. And don’t forget to party!

(Photo by FirmBee / CC BY)

Deb Schaffer, PMP is a project manager, instructor and blogger. She’s managed projects for many years and many companies including Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Learn about her How to Finish Anything course and project management at her blog ProProjectManager.com.


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