Contingency planning: How well are you prepared?

by Sylvie Edwards

How well are you prepared for contingency planning? They say that you often learn a lot of lessons from other people’s misdeeds or mishaps. Let me tell you about the project lessons, I learned from another project manager who literally got hit by a bus, lessons that I still keep in mind when planning my projects to this day.

The incident I am about to relate to you happened about ten years into my project management career. I had been quite successful in most of the projects that I was asked to oversee and manage. I was not a  “newbie” anymore, but I was constantly learning with every new project. None had been easy. Each project had had its share of trauma, but I managed to come out of each with more stories to tell and a considerable amount of best practices to apply going forward in my career.

One thing that was common to all of the projects that I had managed was the fact that I was assigned as the PM right at the point where the charter document was generated. I had actually generated quite a few myself, so I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Most projects had supportive sponsors, and we were able to get the team members and stakeholders organized, engaged, and productive from the get-go.

There are varying scales of success for every project that we accomplished, but they were all completed more or less on time, on budget, and with stakeholder approval.

One particularly nice June morning, I was surprised to get called into the Partner’s office and to be sat down for a “talk.” You can imagine that a lot of things go through your mind when this happens. Well, none of the scenarios going through my mind were actually in play. So, I was not getting fired, I was not being demoted, and I was not relegated to desk duty, but I was being assigned to someone else’s project.

Early that morning on his way to work, another PM in our office had been hit by a commuter bus. It was more than likely going to take him a number of weeks if not months to be able to pick up his workload. A project that had, already passed the planning status, was on his roster and could not go into implementation without it being supported by another lead PM. I had been selected to step in.

At first, I felt quite like the rescuer swooping in to save the day. That was before things started to sink in. The more I dug my heels in, the less I was able to make sense of the project as it stood, due to the lack of documentation and detail that had been left by the previous PM.

Our bed-bound PM, as it now appears, did not believe in early documentation of the process as you go along. In fact, he did not believe in documenting anything at all but the basics to get approvals going. No directions, no decisions, hardly anything.

Expectations were maintained that implementation would take place within a month or so. How do you support an implementation that you don’t really see on paper?

To make matters worse, my sponsor for this project decided to take on a highly visible out-of-town assignment, which meant that I hardly had any time face to face with him. One less brain to pick.

Does it get worst? You bet it did. By this time, the team members could sense my less than enthusiastic view of the project. They started to bail, and for those that remained, the tasks assigned to them began to slip as most believed that I was not going to allow the project to be implemented in this shape.

How well are you prepared for contingency planning?


To all of you reading this, there is a happy ending to this story. It has nothing to do with me being wonder woman in the long run, but it has to do with resilience and setting things straight. I had to do a few things that I would not have done regularly to bring things back to a normal state.

First, I went to the hospital to talk to the previous PM to pick his brain and fill in the holes in the documentation. I had to admit that I could not do this without his help and his knowledge of what had happened before I stepped in.

Second, I sat with the team, and we re-baselined the project. We needed to get agreement early on from management that they were still committed to implementing the project; As well as set out the timeframe in which we could provide this project’s deliverables that would suit everyone’s needs. Once that was done, we treated this new plan as just that, a new plan. We chopped the project into two and treated each section as its own. The first portion was the planning and what had led to today prior to the PM’s unfortunate accident. The second part was the re-baselined information around implementation and final delivery.

We did complete the project within the modified timeline, which was acceptable to everyone under the circumstances and the budget actually did come in on track. One thing that occurred from this experience was the creation of a specific risk to protect the PM on every project and with it a contingency amount and time to support any such situations in the future. I have this outlined in my risk register for almost every project that I undertake. That was my lesson learned. As you protect your key resources via contingency, make sure you also protect the PM. After all, they are a key resource too.


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