Everything Was Going Fine, Until It Wasn’t (and what to do about it)

I had a plan. I had everything in place to support my plan. I was ready to execute and when I did, everything was going fine, until it wasn’t.

I am an ultra distance runner and cyclist. I attribute my crossing the finish line to successful planning and execution. So when it came to the last trail race of the year, a 12 hour timed event on a seven mile loop, I felt ready for the long haul of reaching 50k (31.1 miles). I trained, had my gear and food laid out, and was going to enjoy a 50+ degree November day. Let’s go!!

The first seven mile loop was completed in my anticipated time. I stopped at my vehicle, had a quick bite to eat, refilled my water, and took off on loop number two. So far so good.

Loop two was going as expected. I was enjoying the single-track trails through the woods and a prairie area along side a lake. Then, about a mile before finishing the second loop, the unexpected happened. As I was going down a short but steep decline, tripped over an above ground tree root (the dreaded toe-hanger) and took a very wide and awkward step to catch myself so as not fall. In that instant, a pain shot up from my knee all the way into my lower abdomen. This is not good!

One of the trails we ran on. As you can see, toe-hangars can easily hide under the leaves!

I completed loop two and hobbled over to my vehicle where I stretched for 20 minutes, hoping whatever I did would get better. Still in pain, I took off on loop three. Half way around, I regretted that decision. Though I finished loop three, I did so limping back into the start/finish area. I promptly dropped from the race. Twenty one miles is still a great day, but short of my 50k goal.

Everything had been going fine, until it didn’t.

If you’ve managed projects for any length of time, you can probably relate. The project is kicked off, planned, and work is in progress when BAM!!, something happens. All is suddenly not right. This issue wasn’t identified and now it has the potential of throwing everything into a tailspin. And here you thought the project was going along fine. Wrong!

So what does a project professional do when everything is moving along fine, then it’s not? Here are three tactics to keep you going.

Remain calm and think critically. Let’s be honest, we’re all moving about 500 mph in multiple directions during the day. Tasks to complete. Meetings to attend. Conversations to have. If there is a risk or small issue, we try to make a decision quickly and move on. But when a large issue comes, it’s time for a different approach.

You may be saying, “Well if that were me, I would’ve seen it coming because I’d take the time to do that!” Easy to say. Hard to practice. Some of those issues are sneaky!

At some point on some project, something bad’s gonna happen! When it does, we want to immediately react. I’m telling you, don’t. Take a step back, breathe, remain calm (there’s probably enough hair-on-fire people around you already), and think through the problem. Think critically about the root cause. Grab a pen and paper, find a quiet spot, and think.

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Engage your team on troubleshooting and resolution approaches. For a project to be successful, you need a good team. Because I admit I don’t know everything and there are people way smarter than me, I engage my team to help solve issues.

Back to the race. After my awkward step and pain, I thought some stretches would do the trick. Obviously I was wrong. Another runner on the course, who I know quite well, is a sports massage therapist. Talking to her the day after the race, she said “You should’ve texted me and waited. I would’ve stretched it a couple other ways because I’m sure it wasn’t what you thought.” She gave me some tips during our conversation and within 24 hours, I’m walking 100% better.

Meet with the team and dive into the issue. Hopefully, you were able to think critically about it. But instead of immediately jumping to the solution, try to figure out the source of the problem. Once the problem is uncovered, come up with options to resolve. Maybe the team can make the decision or maybe someone else needs to approve direction. In any case, have a couple options, pick the best one, and move forward!

Remember the project goal. Ask yourself a simple question; what are we trying to achieve? Though it may be a simple question, are we good at asking it when issues arise?

Let me give you an example. On a Business Intelligence (BI) project, done was defined as the ability to log into a portal and generate either a canned or user-defined report and have it delivered in .csv format. That was it. An idea by the sponsor was to develop a BI dashboard with business key metrics and display it on the new intranet page. The sponsor asked if we could try it out, but don’t spend any more than a couple hours. The report was easy, but the display looked terrible online. Right away someone put up a huge red flag.

But when we finally asked the question of what goal the project was trying to achieve, displaying online was not on the list of success factors. It would have been a “Nice to Have”, but by no means required. We dropped the online display and kept with project goals.

Things usually go well until they don’t. Whether in everyday life, in projects, or an ultra endurance race, issues can come from out of nowhere and knock you off course. When they do, remain calm, think critically, engage your team, and focus on the ultimate goal. Good luck!

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