I can’t speak for other countries, but here in Aotearoa we practiced the lifesaving technique “stop, drop, and roll” at school in case we ever found ourselves on fire. 🔥 🛑 ⬇️ 🌀
Thanks to the frequency of stop-drop-and-roll training, and the deep seriousness with which the topic was addressed, I had some wildly-incorrect expectations of the frequency at which I would be on fire. As a kid, being on fire seemed to be just another thing I would have to contend with as an adult. 🔥
Along with work and taxes.
So it is with some level of surprise that I tell you that I have managed to avoid being on fire for nearly four decades now. 🥳
But projects being on fire? THAT I have not avoided.
The truth is, I freaking love a crisis. These fires I run to, not from.
I’m talking about situations where everything has gone sideways, preferably with production systems, and people’s jobs (but not their lives) are on the line.
A crisis requires you to bring your best self. It’s exciting, dramatic, fast-paced, and—with the right team—fun!
So rather than avoid the big-bad-burning-problems, I’m the person who turns up with a “Hi! How can I help?” attitude! And over the years I’ve noticed that when things are going sideways, you have to do things a little differently.
And that’s what this article is all about: how to know when things are going sideways and what to do when they are.
But first, a couple of housekeeping matters: 🧹
- Unlike most of my articles to date, this one isn’t just for business analysts! Instead it is for anyone who finds themselves involved in a project and who is experiences a sense of impending doom.
- I’m going to use the words “initiative” and “project” interchangeably throughout this article. I’ve avoided using only the term “project” because it has some very specific connotations for some, and a few will conclude that it doesn’t apply to them. So, whenever I use the word, I mean a piece of work with an expected outcome which could be a programme, a project, or an initiative.
And with that out of the way, let’s get stuck in.
This sounds like an insane question, but isn’t this the only sensible place to start?
So much of what goes wrong when things go wrong is failure to respond appropriately. Issues get swept under the rug, warning signs are ignored, and people just carry on carrying on. It’s nuts.
And terrifyingly common.
In normal times, your response should be slow and steady as the default. No sudden movements. Just chill. But when you’re on fire, a slow and steady and chill response is how you get seriously burned.
It is critical to be able to spot the difference between normal and not normal.
The first step is admitting that you have a problem. So how can you tell if you do?
Here are some of the biggest red flags, ordered from easiest-to-spot to least. 👇
The project you’re involved in didn’t do the thing it was meant to do when it was meant to do it. And more importantly, you didn’t know well in advance that that was going to happen (surprise 🎉).
And extra demerits for multiple missed milestones in a row!
Don’t let anyone tell you anything other than that this is a huge red flag. 🚩
Because lots of things have to have gone wrong to get to this point. Least worst case, you have a massive comms issue. Worst case, everything you think you know about your initiative is wrong.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but if you are an initiative’s business owner and this happens, then what you’ve got is a black hole that is sucking in your money, never to be seen again. And yes, it is as bad as that sounds. Or at least, it might be.
You’ve been told to “FIX IT NOW” and you are in reaction mode.
You’re working. Hard. Stuff is happening. There are reports and requirements and all sorts of meetings and everyone is stressed. Everything is important. Everything is critical path. And you’re doing it all at once.
Now you’re drowning in requirements and tickets and you no longer know where you are. And there’s no clear end state that you are working toward and you aren’t even sure in which direction you are heading.
You have a fire.
Your energy and your companies money. 🔥💵🔥
It is rare for a project to bust through a milestone without warning. Fires are usually sneakier than that.
And the sneak attack of the missed milestone is less that you actually miss a milestone, and more that your next milestone is adrift. On the horizon. Never actually close. Ever receding.
This one is difficult to spot because it can feel as if everything is fine!! The whole initiative might be utterly transparent about progress and about the issues and complexities they’re uncovering. You might be getting detailed reports and updates. You might have an awesome team who are working collaboratively effortlessly.
The micro isn’t the part that is on fire, the macro is.
When this carries on too long, then sunk costs have accumulated and you may be starting to feel trapped. If you do the quick maths of spend-to-date vs benefits realised (as in actually realised) and want to vomit, then this is you.
You may hear statements such as “We’ve got to just get this done!” And “Can’t stop now!” 😬 Those people might be right, but they might also be wrong! It is likely that they can’t tell what’s what because they are in too deep.
There are lots of reasons you got to this point, but right now that does not matter. No matter how “fun” the team is, you have yourself a fire. 🔥
You don’t know what’s happening.
When you ask questions, the answers you get are vague or overly complicated. You are being bamboozled with technicalities or overly abstract and academic models. It’s hard to get a straight answer and the answers you do get keep changing. You’re finding it tough to keep track.
This particular situation plays on people’s insecurities in a big, big way. It is so easy to talk yourself out of seeing this fire. I mean, shouldn’t you know what that answer means? Maybe you’re the wrong person for this job?? Won’t asking for another explanation make you look dumb??? 😳
Nope to all of the above!
Other than string theory and the plot to Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, everything can be explained.
If you are not getting the answer you need to join the dots, the problem is rarely you.
(And if you need a pep talk around this, this is one of my favourite rant topics so feel free to reach out for a personalised edition if you are in this situation).
In any event, the lack of solid information to which to respond often means that this fire is left burning for much longer than it should be. And yes, don’t let an overly-technical response bamboozle you: it is a fire!
People often have different perspectives on the work you are doing. They may talk about it in very different, and perhaps even contradictory, ways. This is especially common in a vendor/client scenario. The contract says one thing. The vendor is talking about another thing. And the client is talking about yet another thing.
Different expectations aren’t always a problem, but most of the time they are.
And they definitely are a problem when the different understandings (priorities, intentions) put the initiative on a collision course. So the earlier you can uncover the gaps, the better.
When there isn’t alignment or agreement, then at a minimum someone—with a decent chance of that being everyone—is going to be disappointed.
If you’re wondering if your initiative is on fire … well I hate to break it to you, but unless you’re an over anxious cat (and even then), it probably is.
There’s many more symptoms, but broadly speaking these cover the most common ones I know. And if your situation matches one of these, then please read on because you are going to have to tell someone some very bad news.
We all know what you’re meant to do if you spot a fire: raise the alarm! Get help! (My fire metaphor doesn’t extend to building evacuations, so you have to stay put and I’m deeply sorry about that 🔥🏠🔥).
Remember: clothing on fire? Resist the urge to run.
But also remember the cautionary tale of the boy who cried wolf. 🐺
Raising the alarm only works if people trust you.
If you don’t have trust, then raising the alarm is practically worthless. At best, you’ll be ignored, and at worst, punished for pushing against the status quo and being difficult. You’ll be the Negative Nancy (or a Horrible Hannah 😅).
Trust is absolutely necessary. But it is not sufficient!
Things going wrong is a sensitive topic. Talking about it isn’t easy. And telling others—especially if they were unaware of the problem—is the least fun of all. No one likes to be told they’ve got a flop on their hands. Especially if you’re in some way responsible for the outcomes.
Which goes to say that raising the alarm is a gymnastic flip and you absolutely want to stick the landing.
And for that, you need more than trust. You also need rapport. And a good understanding of how they (whoever “they” are) see the world so you can talk about it in their language.
But as hard and as painful as it is, if no one is talking about what is going wrong, then you must. And you need to be as smart and careful about doing so as possible. Announcing that you think the project is a bust at an all-hands meeting is probably not a great call. 😬
No matter how you broach the topic—a quiet coffee, a well constructed email, a quick chat after a meeting—it goes without saying that raising the alarm takes courage.
But let’s assume that someone (maybe you!) has managed to raise the alarm. This brings us to the next step: what to do when you are on fire.
Okay so you know you’re on fire, and you’ve managed to raise the alarm. What’s next?
Stop, drop, and roll isn’t just how to deal with your clothes on fire or some of the best NZ Hip Hop of the early Aughts. It is also excellent advice for when your project is on fire. Without overextending the analogy, let’s consider the three steps:
Staying the course is how to stay on fire. Even worse, simply “tweaking” your approach is a recipe to stay on fire, just in a slightly different way. When your clothes are on fire, running will only make it worse.
It is sort of self-evident that to stop doing the wrong thing, you need to, well, stop! What you are doing is not working. It is making everything worse. So STOP DOING IT. Right now.
To be clear, I don’t mean fire your team / close your business / move to Brazil “stop”. I mean take a breather. Don’t just plow on with the next thing. You will need to take time to work out what’s what.
Excellent! Now that you’ve got everyone’s full attention …
You need to drop your preconceived ideas about your project.
The timeline you thought was solid. The solution you thought you would get. The approach you bought into. The scope you thought was achievable. All these artefacts, discussions, and agreements can inform the new picture, but they’ll need to be re-validated.
The uncomfortable truth is that everything is up for grabs, as anything could be what’s feeding the fire. The more attached you are to what you were thinking, the less likely that you will get to the bottom of things. It is that one thing you refuse to reconsider that may make all your other efforts futile.
And the stakes are high. Unless you understand the situation, any move you make is as likely make it worse as to improve things.
But once you’ve rebuilt a solid picture of your world, then you now know which are the real issues and it’s time to bust a move.
The last step is rolling out a sensible plan. Make your sensible move. Preferably, a move different from the one you were making when you were on fire.
The stop, drop, and roll metaphor is cute, no? It makes it sound easy!
But in the reals, it is nowhere near that simple. Trying to stop, drop, and roll will certainly meet stiff resistance. Because projects, even projects on fire, have inertia, and changing direction isn’t just starting something new, it is fighting against the old and familiar.
Do not underestimate the struggle you may face!
So it isn’t all that surprising how few projects want to stop, even fewer want to drop their preconceptions, and incredible numbers want to go through the pain of stop and drop and then compromise the hell out of the rollout of the new plan.
I see a lot of “course corrections” stumble on the roll step when they fail to understand that they are executing a miniature change programme. Change programmes are complex things that require thought, lots of comms and engagement with the team, and sufficient time to get everyone on the same page.
In short, noticing that something is wrong is hard. Raising the alarm is hard. And fixing it is hard.
But it is also deeply satisfying when you succeed.
This is a gigantic topic. One that we don’t talk about enough.
There were a million side-topics that didn’t make the cut this time—keep an eye out for future articles. The deeper my dive, the more I was reminded of the opening line of Anna Karenina (don’t give me credit; I haven’t read the Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece):
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The same is true for projects, each successful project is alike; each failing project is failing in it’s own way.
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!