What to do when things are on fire!

An illustration of a snakes and ladders board, some dice, and some instructions titled 'help! my project is on fire!'

Practical advice for handling a challenging project ...

This article is the written version of a talk I recently did a talk at a conference titled ”What to do when things are on fire!

The talk – and now this article – has 4 main parts, bookended with an intro (why we need to talk about on-fire projects), and postgame commentary.

Part one (should you even play the game?) covers off the realities of working on a project that is on fire, and has some real talk about when it simply isn’t worth the effort.

Part two (rolling the dice) is all about the most important element of the game: You! How to stay sane under pressure, and how to vent steam without getting caught in a negative death spiral.

Part three (game play) broadens the view to think about your team. How can you help them cope? And how can you get them all on the same page?

Part four (winning the game) is all about the project itself. How do you resolve the big issues? What do you need to win?

Or if the 4000+ words to read below is too daunting, I’ve summarised the key points (minus any narrative or context) in a downloadable cheatsheet! 👇

A cheatsheet summarising this entire article.

Why we need to talk about on-fire projects

Three out of every four projects fail. 🏡🔥🔥🔥

Some limp over the finish line and people only really notice that the project failed to deliver the expected benefits until the launch party is a fond and distant memory. Others are absolute first rate dumpster fires.

If you work anywhere near change, in and around projects, or are the manager in a large enough organisation these statistics matter because statistically speaking, you will find yourself on a dumpster fire of a project at some point. If not multiple times.

Knowing what to do is helpful.

That’s what this article is about. Practical advice for what to do in the event you find yourself on a project that is on fire.

Sounds kinda easy, no? Except all projects are different. There’s context, politics, personalities, deliverables, and all manner of nonsense that makes practical advice challenging. But let’s solve that problem by talking about projects using a suitable (but also cute) metaphor: a game of snakes and ladders. 🐍🪜

Which works, no?

Working in a project that’s on fire has a huge element of chance, and along the way you’ll find things that move you forward (ladders 🪜) and others that will lose you ground. Except in our game, instead of snakes, it’s the squares on fire you need to keep an eye out for. 🔥

And we can use the metaphor of the game to talk about different elements that matter:

  1. The environment (the board)
  2. You (how you choose to play)
  3. Your team (making progress on the board)
  4. The project / programme (actually winning the game!)

I know it’s a lot to cram into an article, but I’m committing! And the only way to start is at the beginning. Which is precisely when you should ask yourself: do you even want to play the game?

Part one: Should you play?

Challenging projects are not fun. Here’s some quotes from people I talked to with real world experience of working on a project that was on fire:

  • “It was crushing, I wanted to leave …”
  • “I was continually expecting something to go wrong, or to find that I’d missed or forgotten something, so super stressful on the inside.”
  • “Who’s going to be the next to burnout?”
  • “Man this is deflating”
  • “How did we get this so wrong??”
  • I felt like a total failure.”

Oof. That last one is a real gut punch isn’t it?

Like I said, challenging projects can be deeply unfun. And while the ability to leave a challenging project is itself an act of privilege, I’ve seen a lot of people fail to realise that it is an option.

And to be clear, throwing your hands in the air in disgust is always an option. It might not be a super viable option, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an option! But even if you aren’t in the position to get out immediately, you can start laying the groundwork for an exit.

That said, making the decision about staying or going can be tough. So I made a checklist of the key things you need to consider. If you can’t say a confident yes to the following statements, then you should consider how to get out.

  1. It’s not a toxic environment
  2. There are people I trust
  3. I’m not bitter & angry
  4. I have support
  5. I can help!

And before you confidently declare that you have passed my test with flying colours I want to spend a little bit of time on #5 above. Because sometimes thinking you can help, is very different from actually being able to help.

Some games are unwinnable! 🔥

There’s a huge difference in your chances of success between the following two game boards. One is winnable (but you’ll have some challenges along the way). The other is borked. No matter what you do and how well you play, you will not win.

Two snakes and ladders boards. The one on the left is normal, there are both fires and 
ladders. The one on the right is unwinnable, the entire top half of the board is on fire.

The question you need to ask yourself is: is the project simply off track but winnable? or is it fundamentally flawed and unwinnable?

And there are two types of fundamental flaws you need to look out for:

  1. The business case is flawed. The proposition isn’t clear or doesn’t make objective sense. 🔥
  2. There isn’t foundational alignment around the proposition. There isn’t consensus about the core approach to delivering the solution (such as platform choices). The business is not all on the same page. 🔥

If your project suffers from one of these, then it is incredibly unlikely that you’ll be able to help the project get on track unless you have incredible influence over the project. I’m talking business-sponsor-level influence here. Real talk: if you think the project is in one of these situations, take a hard look at what is possible and if it is worth sticking around.

And if you do decide to leave, some suggestions:

  1. Don’t feel guilty, it’s just a job!
  2. Don’t threaten, just do it.
  3. Try not to burn bridges.
  4. And don’t bother trying to tell the team how to fix things on your way out the door. That’s pointless. Either stay and help fix, or let it go.

But let’s assume you are saying a confident YES to all 5 items on the checklist and you’ve decided to stay! That’s exciting!

Time to roll ‘em dice!

Part two: Rolling the dice!

Now that you’ve chosen to play, we need to talk about the most important element in the game: You!

It’s far too easy to forget that you’re a player in the “project on fire game”. And it is way too easy to slip into the mode of “it is happening to me” rather than the mode of “I’m freaking happening to it!“.

But the truth is, bar none, you have the biggest influence over how you experience your time on the crisis-project. You are the person rolling the dice. So we need to make sure you’re in a good place before we tackle the team or the project.

The old adage of put your own oxygen mask on first is totally relevant here, so here are some tips for staying sane when things around you are on fire:

First, acknowledge the situation! There’s a really good reason why all the AA programmes and the like start with admitting the facts … it actually works! If you can’t genuinely acknowledge that you’re on a project that’s on fire, there’s no way you can meaningfully get it on track.

Second, find allies – people you trust and who you can vent to! Now, for some personality types this is less necessary than others, but it is (in my experience) always valuable!

Third, ruthlessly prioritise what you put effort into! It is far too easy to slip into an overtime mode to cope with your usual work plus all the extra fire-fighting on top to feel like you’re in control of things. That’s a bad plan and is unsustainable. Failure to prioritise and just working longer hours is actually prioritising short term benefit, over longer term gain. You need to let go of some things.

My most successful application of this was on a project where I would turn up to my morning meeting with the Programme Manager (and my boss). I would of course, always bring my laptop. On the top of the laptop would be post-it notes with all the activities I could do that day and I would declare that “at most I can do 2 of these”.

My boss somehow always managed to convince me to take on 3 post-it notes but that is besides the point. The point is that there were at least 4 other post-it notes that my boss was acknowledging wasn’t going to be progressed today. Together we agreed what was important, and what wasn’t. As a result I could go home for dinner rather than be a slave to my desk!

Forth, create (and stick to) your self-care plan. I don’t know what your self-care looks like … it might be the gym, it might be time with your kids, it might be interpretative dance to spoken word poetry while wearing a bird suit. No judgement here. The point is that you know what keeps you sane and what doesn’t and you do you!

Lastly, regular cheese snacks can help! 🧀 And by that I mean, you need to find enjoyment. For me enjoyment is cheese snacks (and if you know me also dumplings - which is clearly the food of the gods!). For you it might be yoga on the beach, or sky-diving, or dad jokes in the team slack channel. It doesn’t matter what it is, success doesn’t just mean you stay sane, but that you aren’t hating every minute of sanity!

And let’s be honest, if you have lost all the enjoyment, then you have lost the game, no matter what the outcome of the project is!

If you manage to apply these tips, you’ll be more resilient, stable, and able to bring your best self to the fire-fight.

But there’s one other thing that will help you stay sane. Understanding the difference between venting and complaining. 👇

Venting vs complaining

Venting and complaining seem sort of like the same thing but they really aren’t.

Complaining ends with “oh man they’re just the worst” whereas venting ends with “You got this, go get ‘em, give ‘em hell!”

See the difference? Both get stuff off your chest. But only one leaves you empowered.

When you’re complaining you’ve a victim. Things are happening to you. Agency exists elsewhere. You’re not in control. Complaining might feel good for a short bit but leaves you feeling resentful and frustrated.

Venting is far less problematic. Venting achieves the goal (you get stuff off your chest) but maintains your agency. You’re left feeling lighter and ready to jump back into the fray.

Or to use the words that someone used to describe them to me at one point: Venting is a pit-stop. Complaining takes you off the track. 🔥

Getting these two confused can have some interesting and unhelpful consequences. You can end in a death spiral of negativity, and actually miss the positive changes happening in the project. And the risk is that you’ll self select out of the team getting the project back on track.

And on the team is absolutely where you want to be!

It’s worth remembering that how you respond and behave drives how people experience you. Or to use the words of someone much more excellent than I:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Maya Angelou

This is as true when you’re playing a game of snakes and ladders, as it is on a project that’s on fire! A year down the track people won’t remember if you won the game, or if your artefact was key to solving the big issues on that project, but they sure as chips will remember how you were to work with!

And you are a wonderful human with skills who can help. And you will help! Stay positive!

Now, if you’ve got yourself sorted, it sounds like you’re really play the game. Now the fun can really begin!

Part three: Game play

Getting yourself sorted is all prep to actually making progress on the board. You might be able to survive sound rounds of the game solo, but that won’t get you far. You need a team to make real progress.

Except if your project is on fire, your team might be in trouble. Patrick Lencioni’s “five dysfunctions of a team” is a useful reference to understand and diagnose what might be going on with your team. The five dysfunctions are:

  1. Absence of trust 🔥
  2. Fear of conflict 🔥
  3. Lack of commitment 🔥
  4. Avoidance of accountability 🔥
  5. Inattention to details 🔥

In the model, they compound. So if you have absence of trust, you’ll likely to have fear of conflict, and if you have those two, you’ll have lack of commitment … and so on.

Here’s the thing: aren’t these all pretty reasonable responses to stress and pressure?

And what can you do about it?

When things are going sideways, there is huge opportunity to lead by example. Because the truth is, the vast majority of people want to be on the right side of history. They want to be on the team that fixes things. They don’t want to continue working in a dysfunctional environment.

They just need the opportunity to be excellent!

And that’s where you can help.

Leading by example!

The five dysfunctions can help you frame how to lead by example.

To counter the absence of trust, actively build trust through transparency and openly sharing information you have access to. Work in the open and trust your team with your work in progress.

To tackle fear of conflict, model healthy conflict. I don’t mean be disagreeable in order to show how to disagree, but you’ll need to be able to share and discuss challenges to navigate your way out of this mess, so do that. Welcome feedback (even if it makes your heart sink). Encourage voices to share. Celebrate when you discover more problems – it’s actually a good thing because now that you know what’s wrong you can plan how to minimise the carnage!

This takes practice. It is hard to stand still and listen to someone tell you that your idea will fail and calmly respond with “oh interesting, that’s not how I was seeing it due to X, Y, and Z, so let’s unpack that to make sure we aren’t missing something …”

To address lack of commitment in the team isn’t easy. One person can’t model their way out of this. You cannot make the team commit.

There’s a ton going on here but the easiest thing you can do to help the team get back on track is to state the obvious. In a healthy environment there’s a lot that can be left unsaid. This is not true when in crisis. And that is especially true when it comes to how someone’s work is contributing to moving the team forward.

So don’t hedge or hide. Say the obvious, say what you’re seeing, what you think is happening, and how you see your work helping. Saying isn’t committing per se, but it’s a step closer. And every step counts.

Countering avoidance of accountability is easy. Volunteer for stuff! And then do it! Own it! Job done! ✅

And lastly, to address inattention to details, simply care openly about the work. Caring about the spelling mistake in the report and keeping your tickets up to date are just little things and yet they speak volumes. Make your work shine. Help your team see that the work still matters. But be careful to not police other’s work, just your own. 🚓

Getting everyone on the same page

But even as you tackle your team’s dysfunction, there’s the actual project work to do, no?

On projects, especially ones that are under pressure, people tend to be spread thin. And in the areas where people aren’t paying attention (the gaps), issues tend to fester. It usually isn’t that the design is bad, it’s that the design is incompatible with the architecture. Or it isn’t that the research isn’t finding out really helpful things, it’s that the research isn’t be utilised by the other team.

In the gaps is where things smoulder. Any one of those smouldering fires could flare up and become the next big project issue. 🚒

You want to find out what is smouldering at the earliest possible opportunity. The sooner you find out, the better your chance of tackling it before it does actual damage.

You need to be able find and surface the big issues. And to do that you need everyone on the same page.

It is only when everyone is talking about the same thing, that you’ll uncover those big smouldering issues that can hurt you. You need to know which squares are on fire in your game of snakes and ladders in order to avoid landing on one.

Getting everyone on the same page is the real trick! 🪜

To do this you need something everyone can talk to.

It doesn’t matter what it is, it could be a scribble on a whiteboard, a paragraph in a google doc, I’ve even seen a metaphor work (yes really!). As long as you are all able to stand (virtually or otherwise) around a thing and discuss it you’re on the right track!

This sounds much easier than it is in practice and it gets progressively harder as the project gets bigger. It is much easier to get a small team of five on the same page, then it is to find something that designers, architects, programme managers, developers, testers, business reps, and all the other flavours of project peeps can engage with!

That’s a big trick!

Some tips for getting everyone on the same page:

  1. First up, it is super unlikely that your existing artefacts are going to be the magic thing to bring people together! The business case or your requirements document just isn’t going to be it! The act of creating it together is key.
  2. Make sure whatever you use links to all the moving parts on your project. It has to work across multiple domains and not just one. Cross functionality is critical.
  3. Be flexible and open to feedback. Fold in perspectives as you collect them.
  4. Remember: templates can help, but can also constrain. It is more important that it works then it looks good on your portfolio.
  5. Be creative! I once ended up with a diagram that was nicknamed “the rainbow sausage” due to the colour scheme and general shape. It wasn’t a diagram based on any standard modelling approach, it was simply a summary of alllllll the key information about the systems and teams. I hated the nickname but if the CTO finds a thing useful enough to give it an amusing name … well then that’s what it is going to be called! 🤷‍♀️

And while every project is different and I don’t want to advocate for a specific approach (see #5 above), I’ve had the most success with approaches like service blueprints, customer journeys, concept models, and story maps. These types of artefacts seem to work for lots of different people across the team.

Get everyone on the same page and you will have made major progress towards winning the game.

Part four: Winning the game!

The objective of any project is to actually deliver benefits.

The good news is that everything we’ve discussed up until now – the tips for staying sane, how to counter team dysfunctions, how to get everyone on the same page – is as true at the project or programme level as it is for you and your team.

Keeping sane, modelling healthy team interactions and behaviour, getting everyone on the same page are all key to helping put the project fire out.

But with an important caveat … The greater the height, the bigger the fall!

Unless you know exactly what you’re getting into, getting involved in the project level-shenanigans carries risk, especially if everyone is in a panic. There’s usually more politics and ego the higher you get in any game. You’re as likely to be knocked off your ladder by accident as you are to wander into a fire that you can’t escape.

Proceed with caution is all I’m saying.

But let’s assume you’ve managed to navigate that complexity … How do you actually get a project back on track?

Great question! The answer is more simple than you’d expect. You only need two things: The big issues resolved and a realistic plan.

The big issues

The big issues are usually boring and generic. They’re things like:

  1. Scope is not well understood
  2. Timeframes and budgets are too tight
  3. Technical complexity was underestimated
  4. Core assumptions are wrong
  5. You can’t get the right people and skills to do the work

But let me tell you, not only do these issues feel extremely unboring when experienced on the ground, but they also cause all manner of consequences throughout the project. In fact, you can easily get distracted from these core underlying issues by fire-fighting the symptoms these issues create. The lawn is on fire because of the house fire, so put out the house fire first!

But how do you actually tackle the big issues? 🪜

There’s actually no trick here. It doesn’t matter what your role on the project is. Simply continue to turn up. Offer to help. Suggest sensible things. And respect that you can’t be involved in everything.

And if you have have a role that can steer, and/or direction attention, there’s added advice for you:

  1. Make sure the issues are visible
  2. Help your team to focus on the biggest issue
  3. Ask what they need to solve it
  4. Run interference with outside players
  5. Get stuck in (see advice above)

This advice sounds stupid and simple but it works! We like to overcomplicate things when we shouldn’t. Basics get the job done.

Dealing with the big issues is key, because only when you’ve resolved them can you build a plan that will work.

Building a realistic plan!

The second ingredient you need is a realistic plan to get yourself out of this mess and to the finish line.

And to build a good (and realistic) plan you need:

  1. Deep understand of the business case
  2. Knowledge of the in-flight work
  3. Network of stakeholders
  4. A handle on the tech

You, or whoever is in charge, needs to pull the necessary people together with the understanding of all of these to pool information into a realistic plan. So if you’re in charge, get the necessary people together, and if you’re not, advocate for it to happen.

Or just do it anyway!

I’m obviously skipping over the huge chunk of work where the realistic plan is socialised and the key stakeholders actually buy into it (which can be super challenging especially if you’re having to explain how you won’t be able to achieve the outcomes they thought they’d be getting). But if the plan is realistic, based on facts, and navigates a path to winning the game (and assuming that the previous plan would not) then really, apart from pulling the pin on the project, the truth is, the stakeholders don’t really have a choice.

And if you’ve got a plan, and you’ve dealt with the big issues, the rest is just regular project management to the finish line!

You’re back on track to win the game!

Postgame thoughts!

You’ll notice that I haven’t including any advice on downing tools, or doing a project reset, or how to rebuild trust with the client / business reps. The reason is, all advice about that is situational.

But there are two pieces of advice that are universal. 👇

1. Good business analysis can help

Sorting out the issues and building a plan requires a bunch of really good decisions to be made quickly. Good business analysis will help you clarify your options, and help you to navigate your way out of this mess.

I know, I know, I’m a business analyst, so of course I’m going to say that. But the second piece of advice isn’t business analysis related and perhaps even more important …

2. Enthusiasm is criminally underrated

To stand in the face of uncertainty, roll the dice anyway, and deal with the consequences requires resilience. But it isn’t resilience that gets people going in the morning. It’s enthusiasm.

People respond to enthusiasm, they’re inspired by it, they want to get on board, they want to help. Enthusiasm can help people to navigate through all the uncertainty.

And I don’t mean a toxic-positivity kind of cheer-leading false enthusiasm. Genuine, frank, honest enthusiasm is what does the job.

There’s incredible power and leadership in being the person who says: “This is borked … Let’s fix it!”

Lots of people say the first part. Be the person who says the second.

Hey, tell me what you think!

Please do hit me up on LinkedIn or by email if you have any feedback! I’m always up for difficult questions, and I’d love to know what you think of this article and the cheatsheet!