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7 Critical Project Management Lessons from Locke: Managing a Project in Crisis

October 7, 2014

An excellent case study of a project-in-crisis can be found in a riveting small-budget British film called Locke. The story follows a project director who, for very personal reasons, decides that he needs to be away from work the night before a critical milestone in his multi-million dollar construction project.  The film is deceptively simple but highly unusual in that you only see a single character on-screen its entire length, a brilliant Tom Hardy in the title role of Ivan Locke. As Ivan is out driving around, more than 200 trucks deliver concrete to lay the foundation of a new 55-story skyscraper.

After he makes his fateful decision, we watch him in his car taking a barrage of increasingly tension-filled and nerve-wracking calls from work and family on his Bluetooth.  The director of the film reportedly consulted with a senior project manager who worked on the construction of the London high-rise the Shard.

I will try to avoid mentioning major spoilers in case you haven’t seen the movie and are planning to, but I would like to identify specific project issues that come up for Ivan, which will help illustrate some key learning points when executing a project that is under duress:

1) Make sure the requirements are clear and stick to your plan.  Among the first calls that Ivan handles after announcing his absence is with Donal, his trusted but probably younger and less-experienced associate.  Soon thereafter, Donal, now the onsite manager-in-charge, calls to clarify if it would be acceptable to vary the grade of cement initially determined for the pour.  Ivan asks Donal for confirmation of the grade listed all over the whiteboard and paperwork, and explains the dire consequences of using the wrong grade. Although you should always be open and respond to the need for clarification among your team, all key characteristics of your deliverable(s), or scope, should be well-defined and communicated.  The most essential requirements should always be front and center for your team producing the deliverable(s).  Any variations on those requirements need to be approved and implemented according to your established project change control process.

2) Centralize and make accessible key documents  At another point in the film, Ivan directs Donal to the project binder, which contains key documents, such as contact information, project plans, and in this case, construction permits.  As Donal cannot find the binder in the office, Ivan discovers that the binder is with him in the car!  Project management software has come a long way in the last several years.  Electronically-based collaborative tools allow team members to access key, updated information in the absence of anyone, including the project manager.  Having a single hard copy project reference that can be lost, quickly outdated, and less accessible to the project team, especially in a crisis situation, should be a relic of the past.  Even if some documents are only available in hard copy, scanning them in a shared electronic repository, along with all other key relevant project information, is important for as-needed, on-demand access and reference.  Remember to constrict editing rights, though, to those who are authorized to update those documents. 

3) Create goodwill among your stakeholders; you may need to cash in favors later during a crisis.  The movie also shows an excellent example of how a bit of good karma can factor into project success: It is discovered that a vital permit to close off streets for the 200 cement truck delivery the next morning has not been cleared.  In order to obtain that, Ivan needs to call a city official on his personal mobile number at night and convince him to notify the police to issue the permit, which will then block off the streets.  At first the city official is annoyed and balks, but then agrees, remembering that Ivan was the only construction manager who provided his paperwork early for other projects. The lesson learned here is that, if you build up a reserve of credibility and earn a stellar reputation in your role, you are more likely to receive extraordinary, out-of-the-norm help when needed in a project crisis situation.  Leveraging that reserve along with a bit of tact and diplomacy will go a long way in clearing obstacles under the most challenging of circumstances.

4) Exude a sense of confidence, calm, and control in delegating authority.  Early in the film, Ivan’s associate Donal is clearly shocked and panicked at the notion of being delegated the task of managing the concrete pour in his project manager’s absence.  Ivan calmly explains that he has full confidence in Donal and will direct him remotely on what to do. Remember that the project manager is the captain of the ship, and your team and sponsor will take its cues from you–from your ability to plan for and manage risk, your ability to communicate contingencies, and your confidence in entrusting the tasks that are delegated to your team.  A calm and positive demeanor can help keep emotions in check and open the door to constructive solutions in dealing with unforeseen and difficult issues that may arise.

5) Establish clear lines of emergency communication and decision-making authority.  Sometimes when new people are brought in for backup on a project but have less background and knowledge, the project manager has to control the flow of orientation, communication, and lines of authority to avoid missteps.  In the film, a new construction manager is named to replace Ivan, but Ivan specifically tells associate Donal not to take any calls from the new construction manager for the rest of the night to protect the integrity of the plan and proceed with the tasks at hand.  He’s clearly concerned that decisions may be made without knowing all the facts about the project.  Although I obviously cannot endorse the idea of contradicting the wishes of executive management, there is a lesson learned in that when key roles on a project are absent, a comprehensive escalation plan is developed to make sure that there is no ambiguity in terms of who makes decisions in any stakeholder’s absence and how the flow of project communication takes place within the team and to management levels above.

6) Encourage creative thinking and innovation. When the more unexpected and unusual challenges come up, whether your project is in crisis or not, it is important to motivate your team to look for and implement creative solutions.   One of the few lighter moments in Locke occurs when Donal needs to recruit a contractor in the late evening to help on a pump that needs special attention.  Although the contractor is just down the road from Donal’s location, he is unable to drive because he has been drinking.  You’ll have to watch the film to see how they resolve the situation, but creating an environment that uses group creativity techniques such as brainstorming and mind mapping to resolve problems and to handle crisis situations will serve you extremely well as project manager.

7) Develop and manage contingency situations by documenting risks and issues. Although no project is devoid of risks and problems, there are standard documents, such as the Risk Register and Issue Log, that can be helpful in identifying and proactively handling the tasks that can go wrong once the project is underway.  These documents become that much more critical when the project is under duress.  You, your key team members, or other key stakeholders will have family emergencies, commuting/business travel problems, and other factors that can potentially derail the most comprehensive of project plans.  Assessing risks and their impact is one of the most important steps in your project planning process.  And documenting issues when they occur will prove invaluable when assessing lessons learned, which can then be applied to future projects and processes.  Although your risks and issues may not be worthy of a film such as Locke (hopefully not!), the extra time and care in documenting these factors will pay off in the long run in terms of maximizing your chances of project success.

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About The Author

Ray Houdtzagers, PMP, is Learning Solutions Manager for AMA’s seminars on project management and purchasing. He has been with AMA for over 15 years, and has nearly 20 years of professional project management experience, primarily in the development of professional education programs for both classroom and multimedia-based delivery. He also currently serves as the head of the Project Management Office (PMO) for AMA’s USME seminar division.

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