When A Communication Breakdown Nearly Kills A Project

Brad Egeland Creator and Author of Top Project Management Blog: Bradegeland.com

Communication is Job One for the project manager.  Everything else they do is usually pretty essential also, but no task they perform on a regular basis is going to be as crucial to project success as the regular, effective, efficient and accurate communication that is expected of the position.  It’s just a simple fact… communication on the project is critical to project success.

Now, when key information that affects the project somehow falls through the cracks, the overall impact to the project can be enormous…even when those in the know think it likely means little to nothing to the project’s ongoing success or forward motion. Someone knows something that the project manager should be aware of but has no knowledge of…that’s never good. This happened to me…and I’d like to share this frustrating experience from a few projects ago in hopes of generating discussion and never experiencing it again.
When communication broke down
The incident that happened to me involved an outside vendor my company was using for storage of sensitive documents. I was leading a multi-million dollar software implementation for the company I was working for on a government contract. The organization that held the very sensitive documents that the contract was built around was going out of business and selling their assets to a third party that I had never had any involvement with. And this was happening in the middle of this very large government project. However, the owner of the archive and storage facility had neglected to tell me about this and it was going to have a potentially huge impact on my project, our chain-of-custody document retrieval process and our pricing. Basically, this was big.
Was the situation avoidable?
In the twenty years since this happened on that project I’ve thought back to it many times to see if there was anything I could have or should have done differently to avoid the potential mess. I scratch my head and always realize that there really wasn’t. I would not have asked if they were going out of business or selling off their business unless I knew it was happening. By the time I did hear about it, it ended up being costly to my project and nearly caused us to miss some disaster recovery demonstration deadlines that we were contractually obligated to meet and were being paid to adhere to. That’s not good. But I would not foresee something like that unless it came to me in a dream and since I’m not clairvoyant, that wasn’t going to happen.
The lesson that comes out of this for all of us is this…you can follow the company processes to the letter, inform everyone of everything, and plan out your project and everything surrounding it to the best of your ability – to perfection even (though I’m certain I’ve never planned anything perfectly ever) – and it still may not be enough. It will probably never be enough to avoid every situation.
The best you can do is to always try to incorporate best practices and always communicate well on your projects. Something this catastrophic will probably never happen to me again … a complete breakdown like the one that occurred is about like getting hit with lightning.

How it was resolved
As you can imagine, once I finally was informed at the very late stages of the vendor’s transition, I immediately set up a meeting with both parties to get fully up to speed. I needed both sides to know what I needed, what the government needed, what processes had to be followed, what dates needed to be met and what certifications were going to be required of the new vendor. Yes, there was that issue as well. It wasn’t pretty, but we did manage to get the proper knowledge transferred in time and the proper certifications in place. Thankfully.
Summary / call for input
Sometimes it just can’t be avoided…  sometimes you can follow processes to a “T” and it still isn’t enough. Somethings are just outside of your control and you can never risk plan for everything. But you can ensure that good communication is in place. In hindsight, I should probably have been including outside vendors – like this storage facility – in periodic project meetings. That way an upcoming event like this change in ownership would have likely come to light early in the process and thus allowing me and my project team time to handle it without needing to go into emergency mode.
What about our readers – have you had any fires like this that you’ve had to put out due to a communication breakdown? If so, did you put any measures in place to avoid future issues like this? Please share and discuss.
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