Don’t Panic! What to Do When a Project Faces Problems

A branch project already underway is facing major problems. What can you do? Your first reaction may be to panic, but don’t! A large part of project management is solving problems, and we’ll lay out four steps that you can take to get your project back on track.

  1. Identify the problem. In our experience, problems fall into one of three categories: financial, scheduling, and communication.
  2. Figure out the root cause of the problem. This is often also one of three things: a failure to define the purpose of the project, a failure to establish the requirements necessary to deliver on that purpose, or a failure to administer the project in a way that delivers the requirements without unnecessary friction between team members.
  3. Understand what would have prevented the problem. While it’s too late to take preventative steps, understanding them can help guide your approach to a solution.
  4. Get the project back on track. Tie the concepts behind the preventative steps in with what you can do now, and be conscious of the sunk cost fallacy. Sometimes you need to back up to get onto the right path.

With these concepts in mind, you’ll be able to take a clear, objective look at your project and formulate a plan to turn disaster into success.

Identify the Problem and the Root Causes

When a problem comes up during a project, it usually falls into one of three categories: financial, scheduling, or communication.  

While it’s easy to focus in on these problems and try to solve them head-on, this is rarely a productive or successful approach. But if you look beneath the surface, most problems have a mixture of three main root causes that, once identified, provide the key to getting your project back on track.

These root causes build off each other. The first is a failure to define the purpose of the project, which leaves your project without a unifying sense of direction. The second is a failure to establish the requirements necessary to deliver on that purpose, which leads to a schedule and budget that don’t accurately represent the scope of work necessary to complete the project. Last is a failure to administer the project in a way that unifies your team around a common goal, which leads to a breakdown in communication and confusion over who is doing what and when the work needs to be done.

To get a better idea of how these issues can stall a project, let’s take a look at one of the most common examples: a bank that kicks off a project with the goal of building a new branch.

First, they hire an architect who begins drawing up a design. At the 95% complete check in, the staff member designated as the internal project manager shares the drawings and renderings with the rest of the team. The response is an absolute disaster, everyone hates it! The project manager takes their feedback and goes to the architect for a redesign, only to face the same reaction to the new drawings. Four months into the project, the bank is thirty grand in and has gotten nowhere!

What went wrong here?

First, the purpose of the project was simply “we need a building.” The facility was an end in itself, rather than a means to the end of delivering on an organizational strategy. Because of this, the bank’s team wasn’t able to come up with a clear list of requirements to guide the design. This forced the architect to design by trial-and-error. Finally, because the full scope of work hasn’t been established, the project manager wasn’t able to create a reasonable budget and schedule or assign specific roles to members of the internal team.

Now that we’ve done the autopsy, let’s look into what could have prevented this situation so we can start putting together a plan to pull them out of this mess.

Understand What Would Have Prevented the Problem

At the core of preventing the problems we’ve discussed is establishing a clear purpose for the project. This is the project charter, and it must go beyond “we need a building” and focus on specific goals and outcomes. Only with a clear purpose can you begin putting together an accurate picture of what needs to be done to make the project come together.

Answering the following questions will help:

  1. Who are the stakeholders and what are their interests, capabilities, and requirements for the project? These are the people who ultimately define what a successful project looks like, and whose buy-in and participation you need to get things done.
  2. What is the purpose of the project? Building off of what you learned from the stakeholders, you can establish a clear purpose for your project that that fulfills key organizational and branching strategy goals. This purpose gives your project a sense of direction and focuses management and design efforts.
  3. How much will need to be invested in both money and human capital to design and build a branch that delivers on your purpose? This is a complete breakdown of the work to be done, and a look at every potential cost no matter how small from design through construction.
  4. Who will be responsible for the work that needs to be done, and when will they do it? Your team is busy with their day job and the branch project may not be their highest priority. To ensure that work actually gets done, you need to come up with a plan for managing people’s time and setting realistic responsibilities and deadlines that balance their day-to-day work and advancing the project in a timely manner without neglecting any tasks. This includes establishing deadlines for decision-makers as well, preventing bottlenecks from forming in the decision-making process.

As you answer these questions, think about the root causes of your current problems and how this new information could have led to preventative measures that would have eliminated these problems at the source.

Get the Project Back on Track

With the understanding you’ve developed in the previous steps, you’re ready to reconcile where the project should be with where it is now and come up with a plan to get it back on track.

The first step is to establish clear lines of communication and responsibility with your stakeholders so that everyone on your team understands what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.

Communication is the number one predictor of project success, and it is the responsibility of your internal project manager to facilitate communication as well as to hold people accountable for delivering on their responsibilities. There should be no ambiguity around who is doing what or what needs to be done next.

With the participation of your internal stakeholders and internal partners, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and sort through the work that’s already been done and determine what to keep, what to discard, and how to loop your current efforts into a new plan that delivers on your purpose.

Keep the sunk fallacy in mind and be aware that even if you’ve already invested heavily in a design, staying the course won’t save you money if it doesn’t advance your goals. What you’ve already invested is only a portion of your overall project budget, and becomes even less significant when you are comparing the difference in growth potential between your current path and your ideal path. Proceed with confidence, and don’t be afraid to take a few steps back and redo work the right way.

Remember that no effort is wasted. Solving problems is a large part of the project management process, and through this robust process you’ll not only be able to turn your current project around but also learn lessons that that you can apply to future projects and put them on a solid foundation from day one.



To learn more about the branch project planning process, download our Branch Transformation Planning Kit. It’s a robust set of documents and templates including branch planning activity sheets, a guide to selecting partners, an RFP template that you can modify, and a weighted value-based partner selection scorecard.

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