Leave Fighting Fires to Professionals

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firefightersI recently had a fire at my house. A high voltage wire in the electrical meter box on the outside of the house exploded and caught fire. The good news we were home, the fire was quickly contained, and thankfully nobody was hurt. It was obviously unexpected and not on my radar as a risk. This had me thinking a bit about how “fires” appear unexpectedly in projects. As Project Managers we plan for the expected and also inherently face the “known-unknown”; knowing that unexpected events, circumstances, or outcomes will take place in our projects that are hard or even impossible to plan for or predict. These unknowns could be small changes in scope or even loss project funding.

How you respond to these events is critical. I learned early in my Project Management career, that when the unexpected events happen, take some time to digest it and work through all the options/solutions. This is necessary because in some cases what could be initially perceived as major could end up being a non-event and there is no need to cause any unjust panic in the team or stakeholders.

So each time you encounter such events, the key is not how fast you react, but more about taking a measured response. You do not want to be a “fire-fighter” as a Project Manager. In my experience, PM’s that are continuously “fire-fighting” are only demonstrating that they had planned their project poorly and/or they are weak in handling the unexpected. Actual Fire Fighters, like the ones that came to save my house, are well trained and know exactly what they’re doing when dealing with an emergency. All project managers should take note and act similarly when confronting the “known-unknowns” in their projects.