3 min read

Expecting and the unexpected

My wife and I are really excited. We’re expecting our second daughter in a couple of weeks. We have a due date, we found out the sex, and we’ve planned for her arrival as much as possible. It’s in my blood, I must plan. I must know what is happening at all times. But, when it comes to baby time, you just can’t plan as much as maybe you’d (or I’d) like! Point in case: I just am not sure exactly when I’ll be holding that beautiful little baby girl in my arms. Or, looking at it another way, I don’t know when my whole life will change completely again.  I also don’t know how it will change! There are some things—exciting or scary—in life that we can expect, but can never really know to what extent they will affect us. The same applies to project work.

As project managers, we do the best to plan everything from work and milestone dates to resources and calendars. We like to be on top of everything at all times. It makes sense; some level of control on a project is necessary. But we need to know when to relax, because unexpected events, discussions and ideas happen on every single project.

It’s impossible to plan for the unexpected, but it’s a good idea to practice risk management and ask enough questions of your team and your clients to get a sense for what might happen. The same goes for having a baby! No two pregnancies, parents or kids are alike, but arming yourself with the info you need to get through your own unique situation will help you to understand how to handle yourself when faced with baby time. Like I said, you’ll never know what to expect, but having a sixth sense about what could possibly go wrong (or right) isn’t a bad idea. Here is a possible client-related/delivery scenario that helps to illustrate my point:

Client Design Ping Pong: You plan for three rounds of client feedback. This is standard, and it allows for a healthy level of agency-client collaboration. Only, in this instance, it feels like the client just isn’t getting it. Maybe their feedback has been riddled with conflicting comments and a whole lot of questions.  You do your best to answer all questions and keep the project on track. Your team delivers the “final” round of revisions (as determined by your scope and your project plan). The client comes back three days later and says, “We’ve decided that we’d like to take a departure from this design and give the design more flair!”

BAM! You maybe expected some more feedback to finish out the work, but FLAIR? Okay, this is problematic and totally unexpected. How do you arm yourself to handle this situation? Well, here’s a start:

Make sure that your scope is crystal clear. If you’re going to start all over from scratch after three rounds of review, your client should know that it will have a price attached to it.

Make sure that your project plan is crystal clear: Unless you work for BIG MAD MEN AGENCY UNITED INC., you can’t (and likely don’t want to) turn around a shiny new set of concepts based on “more flair” quickly. Not only do you need a good basis for making changes, you need to set limitations about what you can and will do within a certain amount of time.

Make sure your clients are aware of your timeline gaps and resource restrictions. This is always a problem for me: even if a client holds something up for a few days, they need to know that we can’t just jump back on something and turn it around immediately. A plan is a plan is a plan. And you need to stick to it in order to meet those deadlines.

Ask questions. It’s your project and you’re just as invested in this thing as the clients. Ask them why things are going down the way they are. Don’t be bashful. Asking questions could help you to come up with a solution that the client never would have expected.

Hang on to everything. I’m talking about communications, shared documents, etc. You just never know. Something miniscule that was said months ago could crop back up and become an issue. And might you need to refer to it. It’s just always good to keep everything. You just never know. (I actually tend to hang on to stuff for the term of the project, and even a year after—just to be safe. That might be overkill, but that is me.)

Most project managers do these things anyway; honestly, they are just standards of practice. If they aren’t, you might be doing something wrong. Regardless, it never hurts to have a little reminder. In the end, you will never be fully prepared to deal with every curve ball that a project throws you—with your internal team or your external clients. But knowing that you’re armed to deal with unexpected issues is half the battle. And, when things go your way, knowing that you planned for the worst will just make life sweeter.

Do you have any stories about handling unexpected situations to share? Are there things that you do to create contingency plans on projects? Are you also having a little baby project manager? Please share!