Should We Really Be Surprised On Our Projects?

“That doesn’t surprise me.” You’ve heard it. I’m sure you’ve said it. But yet, when something happens on our projects, we’re surprised! How did this happen? Why didn’t see this coming?

But I ask you, knowing the dynamic and fluid nature of projects, should we really be surprised?

I think of a client project from a handful of years ago. We kicked it off and right away, it nose-dived into the ground. The project sponsor, who was also the CIO, got fired. The interim CIO did not allow us to keep moving forward, so we shelved the project. When I talked to the team, the lead architect smiled and said “Well, doesn’t surprise me. He was a goner and everyone knew it.” Everyone, but me, it turned out. Should I have been surprised? Probably not.

After talking to the team more, CIO’s have a short lifespan at this company. They come in, make promises, don’t deliver, and get fired in 6-12 months. The latest CIO, the one who was my sponsor, faired slightly better by making promises, creating a roadmap, and delivering on one commitment. The team saw the writing on the wall a couple months before the termination. I should’ve asked more questions!

Good project managers use skills to reveal surprises certain to exist. You can’t catch 100% of potential surprises, but I believe you can catch the majority. Here are some tips to uncovering surprises, before they become surprises.

Discovery. Always observe and gather as much information as possible without getting too deep into the details. Don’t commit to assumptions as truth, but instead hypothesize and gather more information. Discovery isn’t just at the start of the project. It happens throughout. Always be gathering information.

Challenge Assumptions and Ask Questions. How many times do you hear the word “assume” or “should be…” in conversations? When you do, that should trigger a follow-up questions. Challenge the assumption and remain open to the surprises the conversation could uncover.

Listen Deeply. Focus on active listening by making it about the other person. The best way to uncover surprises is by listening. Validate the other person’s knowledge of a subject. Ask questions and repeat back what you heard. This builds trust and confidence because not only will they share with you now, but in the future also.

Get a Listening “Buddy”. I’m not the smartest person in the room. Therefore, when I go into a meeting with super smart people who’ll use technical language, I bring a “buddy.” These buddies have a deeper knowledge of the topic and note areas of concern or ask specific questions. Work as a team and uncover those surprises that are out there.

Keep a Positive Mindset. No one likes a yeller, the Chicken Little (THE SKY IS FALLING!!!), or an Eeyore (it’s gonna rain) project manager. If you keep a positive mindset. You can think more quickly and clearly as well as be more approachable by the team. If you’re reactive, people won’t come to you as often.

Keep a Deadpool List. Employees who quit usually give you a sign they are or seriously thinking about it. I’ve kept a “Deadpool” of employees who have given some indication of wanting to leave. I’ve even been on some teams where they bet who would be next. On the surface, it may seem a bit humorous. But, below that are mitigation plans and what if scenarios should it come true. Know who may be thinking about leaving!

You won’t catch 100% of the surprises that are out there, ready to jump out of the bushes and scare you. But, by taking steps, you and your team can probably uncover the majority of them.

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