October 19, 2023

How to Survive Project Management Crisis

Your customers escalated a problem to the top management for no clear reason. They are going to cancel the project and withdraw the contract. Your boss is calling up an emergency meeting. What should a project manager do?

Once, I faced a project management crisis that developed due to continuous client’s dissatisfaction. It accumulated over almost a year. I failed to notice it.

The complaint was so severe that none of us believed it was possible to make amends.

It took more than three months of hard work. Nevertheless, we were able to finish the project, keep the client, and learn crucial lessons.

Today, I want to share the action plan that helped to survive several crises already.

The Root Cause of Project Management Crisis

It boils down to just a few major root causes. It may seem like there are many special and unique cases. However, all of them can be mitigated by controlling the four aspects named below.

1. Failed Expectations

  • It may be a simple misunderstanding discovered way too late. Stakeholders have their own picture of the project work. They want to get a particular delivery or reach a particular milestone. Even, if you did not promise either of that, you will break their expectations. Therefore, you need to ensure they know what and when they will get exactly.
  • There might be a discrepancy between the sales promises and your actual performance. If you get a project with an unrealistic deadline or budget, expect to fail expectations.
  • Even if you do everything to the requirements, there is a chance that the final result will simply not meet clients’ expectations. It is a problem of continuously adjusting their vision of the end product.

2. Poor Communications

Everything is in place. The project is progressing according to the plan. However, the customer is unhappy.

How does it happen?

Stakeholders have commitments to their superiors. Sponsors care about their investments. But none of them has a clear picture of a project life. Especially, if they are far away from the project team.

Where they lack understanding, they compensate with their own imagination. You should face it. Our mind is quite pessimistic. Therefore, it tends to draw disaster scenarios first. Stakeholders start to get nervous.

It happens even with seasoned businessmen and executives. So, what should you do?

You need to create a clear picture of your project in the minds of stakeholders. They should know what happens on the project on a daily basis. But you need to generalise the daily work for them and group it into transparent processes and results.

How do you do that? Correct, through constant communication.

3. New Key Stakeholders

It can be either a new stakeholder. Or it is a stakeholder who gets a rapid boost to authority or power over your project.

In any case, you failed to predict and manage that.

Their first step is to get in the context of the project or take over the control. The amount of information and actives is huge. I can guarantee that there are several aspects of your project that they will find scary.

Therefore, they will escalate.

On the other hand, they may have additional requirements that you did not consider during planning.

4. Unfair Conduct

Some people do not understand the benefits of win-win relationships. They tend to get more for less. Therefore, they will tend to take extra advantage of contractual obligations or penalties.

Also, you may have to work with another manager from the client’s side. He or she might not behave ethically in some cases. At least they will tend to cover their backs at your cost.

So, you need to expect escalations on every occasion.

Action Plan for the Crisis

You can apply this action plan when you are already in a project management crisis. However, you can also use it to prevent one.

1. Acknowledge the Crisis

Write an email, confirm that you acknowledge the crisis and you are on it already. You may not have any details yet but ensure the customers that you are taking it seriously.

If you don’t answer promptly, they will imagine the worst-case scenario.

You are not responding to their urgent crisis email. Most likely, your whole office packed up and moved to Cuba with their money. And bank their account.

The same goes for your management. It is better that they know everything from you. Not a follow-up escalation email.

2. Find Out the Root Cause

Now that you informed the customers and your management, you can try to find out the root cause.

Don’t overcomplicate it. Most likely, it is one of the four: expectations, communications, new stakeholders, or an unfair act.

Also, don’t try to find a solution here. You will need to work with all stakeholders to walk through any solutions you have.

3. Develop Options Internally

Remember one thing. In a project management crisis, all your management, superiors, and peers instantly become stakeholders with high interest, power, and authority. Just like you are responsible for your project, they are responsible for their department, company, and knowledge area.

Most of them will want to help. Some of them will need to cover their back. In either case, you can’t ignore them. Otherwise, it will be more painful for you.

Therefore, develop options to get out of the crisis together. You do need a plan that will be supported internally.

4. Restore Your Credibility

Before you can address the root cause of the problem, you need your expert authority restored. Therefore, you need to negotiate a short-term action plan with your customers.

You need to prove that you have a step-by-step plan to get out of the crisis. But to do that, you need to ensure that the first and each step will be efficient and valuable.

Agree to a very specific commitment for the next two to four weeks. It should prove that you are in control of the project.

5. Start to Over Communicate

Now it is time to fix communications and expectations problems. You need to prove that each hour and each dollar of the project is spent efficiently.

You can start sending daily reports. Your client will read them only for a week. But during this time, you will be able to adjust the project priorities and address their fears. After that, these reports will be just a signal that everything works as expected.

You may also consider inviting customers to daily sync-up meetings.

6. Commit to Deliver Value

At this point, all your efforts should be aimed at delivering the short-term commitment you made.

It is a crucial point of project management crisis. You can not fail it.

You need to master all your leadership abilities. Sometimes it is worth building up serious discipline in the team. For the duration of the crisis, you need to motivate your team for extreme ownership of the problem.

Only after your customer accepts your delivery, you can move on.

7. Promise to Correct the Root Cause the Right Way

First, you need to restore your credibility and deliver value to the customer. Only after that you need to talk about the root cause of the crisis.

Keep in mind these are your problems. Customers are interested in the results that they expect to get. They do not really care about the issues you encounter on the way. They don’t care about process improvement.

However, they do care about stability, transparency, and predictability of your work. If you want to normalise relationships in the future, these are the cornerstone values.

Focus on improving these aspects of the project work for the customer.

8. Renegotiate the Long Term Commitment

Crisis or not, you still have your initial deadlines and constraints. Now it is time to check whether you are still capable of delivering the project and meeting its objectives.

In some sense, it is a perfect place to renegotiate the project terms.

You went through a crisis, you solved it together, and probably detected new risks. If customers cooperated during the previous steps, then they might be open to reviewing the end date of the project and budget.

Be careful if the crisis was clearly caused by you or the team and there is the damage already. Customers may agree to soak up the negative effects of the unexpected event. Though, they will be reluctant to pay for incompetence. In such a case, you will need to look for additional resources internally.

9. Normalise Relationships

You can not cancel all extra measures, meetings, and reports implemented to solve the problem in one day. However, it may be difficult to continue to work under pressure for an extended period of time.

Therefore, you now need to get the project life back to normal. You need to substitute the extreme measure with more routine processes while keeping the same quality of communication.

It is better to collaborate with customers on the comfortable monitoring and controlling processes.

10. Collect Feedback

When you get back to normal, you need to ensure that all fears and remorse are under control. They may fire up and cause dissatisfaction again.

Therefore, ask directly whether your customers are satisfied with your work. Is there anything else they would like to improve? Do it regularly.

How to Handle Unfair Conduct

The specifics of unfair conduct are that it… Well, unfair. The customer is not interested in solving the crisis in a win-win manner. Therefore, you will stuck at step number seven. After that, you need to set a very formal and bureaucratic mode until the end of the project.

I believe that it is your duty to ensure that such relationships end as fast as possible. And for sure, they should not happen twice.


I think a crisis is a positive experience for a project manager. It will make you never want to repeat it again. If you are not fired from the start, then you still have a chance to fix the situation. And in the end, if you survive it, you will be able to improve your project management to a new level.

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