How to lead change when your project is crashing and burning – Part 2

In 2023, Silicon Valley Bank failed. Then so did US Regional. One of the main reasons? Bad news travels fast, and in the telling, the severity cranks up until everyone is in a panic, yanking cash out of a sinking ship until there’s nothing to keep it afloat.

Our brains abhor a vacuum. When there is concern or stress and we lack information, we fill the gaps with whatever is available, often disregarding the credibility of the source: “Your Aunt Sally’s neighbour was implementing the same type of change and it sank the company? We are all doomed!!”

Why do we do this? Because uncertainty is uncomfortable. We want predictability! We want to know what will happen so we don’t get caught in the crash, whether it’s losing funds in the bank or being associated with a project that’s going to be considered a failure.

Whether we want to drive buy-in or keep people on board when a project is crashing, the solution is the same: Clarity

Regular communications (weekly, bi-weekly) are important for any project. When there is trouble, you must crank up the frequency. During emergencies, project teams meet daily, and sometimes more, to ensure they stay in sync and are clear on what needs to be done. 

Virtual meetings are common, but if you want to maintain calm get in front of people physically whenever possible. People want to look their leaders in the eye to judge whether they truly have things under control. A memo won’t cut it. If speaking virtually, turn the camera on!

The highest ranking leader possible should address stakeholders. Note that I said stakeholders – all of them! Not just the project team. Do not rely on middle managers to cascade the message; Go direct! Get the most senior person in front of them to reassure and explain what’s happening.

How Much
Be as transparent as possible:

  • This is what has happened
  • This is where we are today as a result
  • This is what we are going to do next
  • This is what you can do to help

The last point is critical. I have told many audiences, “I know this is not what any of you were expecting. While we don’t want you to sugarcoat the situation, the best thing you can do is to refrain from really negative discussions. Please give leadership the time they need to…” Often, all we can do is wait.

If you can’t reveal everything that is happening, say that, and then tell them when they can expect more details.

And if the project is being shut down – recovery is not expected – explain the reasons why and spend a lot of effort honoring those who contributed. Celebrating does not send the right message, but we can praise those who fought to get us to the goal, even if ultimately unsuccessful.

News travels fast, and fear supercharges a negative cycle. Make clarity your best friend…it walks hand-in-hand with credibility.

Thoughtfully yours,
Jeff Skipper

Verified by MonsterInsights