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The Most Important Project Management Skill? Putting Out Fires Without Starting New Ones

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: May 19, 2017

No matter how meticulously you plan them out, and no matter how honed your project management skills are, there is no way to disaster-proof your projects.

By far the most productive thing you can do to prepare for disasters is to accept that they will happen, and make sure your response doesn’t make things worse when they occur. Panicking and implementing knee-jerk solutions can often hurt your projects more than the actual disasters themselves.

Put simply, one of the most fundamental project management basics is being able to put out fires without starting new ones.

Expect disaster and embrace your limitations

In general, it is healthy to expect and accept that each of your projects will, on average, encounter at least a few disasters. Inexperienced project managers who haven’t come to terms with this basic reality of project management often find themselves panicking and reacting emotionally at any sign of things going wrong.

Don’t take it personally when things do go sideways. Keep a cool head and make sure you aren’t making any decisions based purely on emotion. Just because you’ve meticulously planned out every last detail of your timeline in your project management plan doesn’t mean that you’re immune to the kinds of mistakes that everyone else makes.

You have limited control over the situation, with limited time and resources, and to some extent, becoming a mature, competent project planner means learning about and accepting your limitations.

Accepting that things will inevitably go wrong immediately removes the anxiety of whether disaster will happen and helps you focus to what to do when it strikes.

Anything that can go wrong, will, and that’s OK as long as you remember to not take things personally, be willing to adapt, and are obsessed with figuring how to get shit done despite the circumstance. 
— Len Kendall, VP of Communications, Carrot – The VICE Digital Agency

Don’t be afraid to correct major problems

Good project management is about more than just staying calm when things go sideways, however.

Unexpected problems often occur at key junctures in projects, when deadlines are looming, resources are limited, and decisions need to be made quickly. Being able to react in a short period of time can mean the difference between a minor delay and a major missed deliverable.

But following a gut feeling and applying surface-level, incomplete solutions that ignore fundamental, underlying problems can also compound your problems.

The only way to avoid this is to take a step back, look at your team as a whole, and be absolutely sure that the disaster isn’t the result of some deeper problem within the organization.

Don’t use problem solving and fighting small fires as an excuse to avoid having awkward, uncomfortable conversations with team members about fundamental problems that might be affecting your company.

If there’s an elephant in the room, address it. The sooner you get big, uncomfortable conversations out of the way, the sooner you can move on to productive work.

Disasters that really take down startups rarely have to do with technical or procedural tasks at hand, and often ultimately come down to some kind of failure in communication. And often the only way to address crises in communication is more, and better communication. 

Many project managers will encourage this by holding weekly debriefing sessions where team members can vent, talk about what they think everyone is doing wrong, and get big problems out into the open. Being able to talk openly about problems often has less to do with someone’s individual courage than it has to do with having a public forum for it.

Maybe this means having team ‘venting’ sessions at the end of projects. Maybe this means going out for beers after work and fostering an attitude of openness among team members. The ideal arrangement will be different for each team, and project managers should exercise discretion when coming up with their own solution.

Learn from your mistakes

Don’t forget to evaluate the project once it’s complete to identify things that worked well, and what could have been done better. Simply walking through this thought process will help you to be better prepared for the next project.
— Kevin Murray, Senior Director of Talent Acquisition, Wayfair

So you’ve successfully faced a disaster head-on with a cool head, and you’ve had all the difficult discussions that you needed to have. Now what?

After solving a stressful problem, many people are tempted to simply move on and get back to productive work. 

But documenting and taking note of what went wrong can be just as valuable as solving the problem in the first place.

Disasters contain much more information than successes, and every good project planner should take pains to record as much detail about them as they can.

Take notes at your crisis meetings. At the end of a difficult day, write down exactly what went wrong. Forcing yourself to put a problem into words is a great way to help you fully understand it. Also, take it as a rule that if you don’t write it down, you’ll forget it!

Having a log of what exactly went wrong throughout the course of the project can also help you perform a thorough debrief and post-mortem [LINK:] at the end of the project. Doing so might be the last thing on your mind after pulling an all-nighter to hit a deadline, but going through one well-documented, thoroughly analyzed crisis will teach you more about your company than any one success. 

Being able to look at your limitations and mistakes clearly can mean the difference between repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and growing as a company.

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