Scott Berkun on “What To Do When Things Go Wrong”

Posted on: August 29th, 2013 by bobmorris

Making Things HappenIn Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management (O’Reilly Media 2008), Scott Berkun provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel on how to master project management, whatever the nature and extent of a project may be. Inevitably, problems develop once a new initiative begins. What to do? Here’s Scott’s advice.

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1. Calm down. Nothing makes a situation worse than basing your actions on fear, anger, or frustration. If something bad happens to you, you will have these emotions whether you’re aware of them or not. They will also influence your thinking and behavior whether you’re aware of it or not. (Rule of thumb: the less aware you are of your feelings, the more vulnerable you are to them influencing you.) Don’t flinch or overreact—be patient, keep breathing, and pay attention.

2. Evaluate the problem in relation to the project. Just because someone else thinks the sky has fallen doesn’t mean that it has. Is this really a problem at all? Whose problem is it? How much of the project (or its goals) is at risk or may need to change because of this situation: 5%? 20%? 90%? Put things in perspective. Will anyone die because of this mistake (you’re not a brain surgeon, are you?)? Will any cities be leveled? Plagues delivered on the innocent? Help everyone frame the problem to the right emotional and intellectual scale. Ask tons of questions and get people thinking rather than reacting. Work to eliminate assumptions. Make sure you have a tangible understanding of the problem and its true impact. Then, prioritize: emergency (now!), big concern (today), minor concern (this or next week), bogus (never). Know how long your fuse is to respond and prioritize this new issue against all existing work. If it’s a bogus issue, make sure whoever cried wolf learns some new questions to ask before raising the red flag again.

3. Calm down again. Now that you know something about the problem, you might really get upset (“How could those idiots let happen!?”). Find a way to express emotions safely: scream at the sky, workout at the gym, or talk to a friend. But do express them. Know what works for you, and use it. Then return to the problem. Not only do you need to be calm to make good decisions, but you need your team to be calm. Pay attention to who is upset and help them calm down. Humor, candor, food, and drink are good places to start. Being calm and collected yourself goes a long way toward calming others. And taking responsibility for the situation (see the later section “Take responsibility”), regardless of whose fault it was, accelerates a team’s recovery from a problem.

4. Get the right people in the room. Any major problem won’t impact you alone. Identify who else is most responsible, knowledgeable, and useful and get them in together straight away. Pull them out of other meetings and tasks: if it’s urgent, act with urgency, and interrupt anything that stands in your way. Sit them down, close the door, and run through what you learned in step 2. Keep this group small; the more complex the issue, the smaller the group should be. Also, consider that (often) you might not be part of this group: get the people in the room, communicate the problem, and then delegate. Offer your support, but get out of their way (seriously—leave the room if you’re not needed). Clearly identify who is in charge for driving this issue to resolution, whether it’s you or someone else.

5. Explore alternatives. After answering any questions and clarifying the situation, figure out what your options are. Sometimes this might take some research: delegate it out. Make sure it’s flagged as urgent if necessary; don’t ever assume people understand how urgent something is. Be as specific as possible in your expectation for when answers are needed.

6. Make the simplest plan. Weigh the options, pick the best choice, and make a simple plan. The best available choice is the best available choice, no matter how much it sucks (a crisis is not the time for idealism). The more urgent the issue, the simpler your plan. The bigger the hole you’re in, the more direct your path out of it should be. Break the plan into simple steps to make sure no one gets confused. Identify two lists of people: those whose approval you need for the plan, and those who need to be informed of the plan before it is executed. Go to the first group, present the plan, consider their feedback, and get their support. Then communicate that information to the second group.

7. Execute. Make it happen. Ensure whoever is doing the work was involved in the process and has an intimate understanding of why he’s doing it. There is no room for assumption or ambiguity. Have specific checkpoints (hourly, daily, weekly) to make sure the plan has the desired effect and to force you and others in power to consider any additional effort that needs to be spent on this issue. If new problems do arise, start over at step 1.

8. Debrief. After the fire is out, get the right people in the room and generate a list of lessons learned. (This group may be different from the right people in step 4 because you want to include people impacted by, but not involved in, the decision process.) Ask the question: “What can we do next time to avoid this?” The bigger the issue, the more answers you’ll have to this question. Prioritize the list. Consider who should be responsible for making sure each of the first few items happens.

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Scott Berkun (@berkun) is the best selling author of four books, Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds. His work has appeared in the The Washington Post, The New York Times, Wired Magazine, Fast Company, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, and other media. He has taught creative thinking at the University of Washington and has been a regular commentator on CNBC, MSNBC and National Public Radio. His many popular essays and entertaining lectures can be found for free on his blog at

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