Leading Edge: Recovering from project manager meltdown

As the principal partner of Solutia SDO, Jackie Clark has had a direct role in managing the people behind technology that’s transformed businesses across Canada. When IT projects stall, she knows how to manage people to get them running again. In this bi-weekly column, she’ll be sharing her insight on navigating the issues and pain points that hijack the success of large projects. We’ll be sharing the most common questions Clark hears from her clients and her responses to them. Do you want your project management problems solved? Leave a comment with your question or Tweet Jackie @sdosolutia. 

I just lost a huge client because one of my project managers had a meltdown in a status update meeting. He blamed the client’s staff for all the challenges on the project. The meeting culminated with the project manager being escorted out. The client then called and fired us. This was a half a million-dollar project! If this happens again, I won’t have a business. What is the best way to handle a client crisis like this?

First thing – take full responsibility. This is ultimately your fault – not the clients or even your project managers. The client was paying you a lot of money for a professional service and trusted that you could provide the best person for the job. It sounds like your PM was struggling to keep the project on track and lacked the hard and soft skills to identify the real issues and deal with them without finger pointing or passing the buck. Projects have a tendency to go sideways regardless of the star quality of your PM. There are just too many outside influences (including client staff who may or may not have the right stuff) over which we have no control. At this fateful meeting, your PM’s stress and frustration reached its tipping point with disastrous results.

So how is this type of client crisis avoided in the future? Unfortunately, you can never totally protect your business from a surprise disengagement; however. you can do some very simple things to reduce the risk of PM malfunction.

  1. Take the time to meet regularly with your PMs – as a group if you can swing it – to understand what’s happening in their world. Encourage them to discuss any issues or problem areas to provide advice on how they could be managed. Frame it as a mutual learning opportunity to avoid the feeling of micromanagement.
  2. Let your clients know this is a differentiator that defines your business from the other shops who just fling a resource out there to sink or swim.
  3. Ask your clients for feedback on how you can improve your service. This requires courage. If you’re on top of the issues you’re hopefully not surprised by what you hear. Lawyers have it right: never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer.
  4. If there’s an issue, high tail it immediately to your client’s office to discuss and solve it together. Your PM may still be walked out the door but at least you’re doing the walking rather than your client. In my experience, clients will always give you a second chance if they trust you get it, can fix it, and won’t let it happen again.



Jackie Clark
Jackie Clark
Program and change management expert in digital and data transformation, and technology system reengineering.

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