Asking for Help

Do you ever ask for help or assistance?  I don’t know why so many people (And organizations!) feel like they cannot go get help when they need to.  Perhaps because people see asking for help as a sign of personal failure, they are reluctant to do it. Instead, they continue to struggle and hope for a miracle or stick their heads in the sand and deny reality. Project managers can be as guilty of this as anyone. However, good project managers know when and how to ask for help.  Trust me on this one – I have to do it more than I like to admit!

When to Ask for Help

Situations that lead to eventual project problems or outright failure come in two flavors—project specific and systemic. As part of effective project management, before beginning work you created a project schedule and a risk management plan, which included indicators of potential problems. Missing milestones or falling behind on interdependent tasks are yellow flags to project managers that may signal the need to ask for help. (see: Spotting a failing project and How to create and use predictive project scheduling)

I purposely recommend considering schedule slips as caution flags rather than red flags. Although project managers need to be alert to missed deadlines, they should not over-react. Consider the circumstances. Did the team learn something during execution that changed task order and priority? Should the schedule be revised to reflect this new knowledge? Did customers change requirements and agree to the schedule impact? Judgment is required to discriminate between manageable schedule slips and problems requiring help. On the other hand, be careful not to cheat at solitaire here by telling yourself that the problem is manageable without help when it is not.

Potential risks that become reality should be analyzed for their impact on cost and schedule. When a project manager creates the risk management plan, they consider what could happen. (see: PMBOK: Project Risk Management and  Is Project Management a Risky Business?) The manifestation of a risk indicator should lead to detailed analysis and perhaps management review. Based on analysis by the project manager and lead technical personnel, you may need to seek help to achieve original project goals or significantly modify expectations.

Systemic problems cannot be fixed by the project manager. Poor communication with senior management, shifting priorities, restructuring and frequent resource reallocation reflect an organization’s culture. Although the project manager has limited ability to change a culture, they must be aware of its potential effect on project success and do the best they can to accommodate the resulting problems.

Do not wait until senior management or the customer notices a problem, be proactive.

How to Ask for Help

One of those annoying management phrases is, “bring me solutions, not problems.” Unfortunately, this attitude is present in many corporate managers. So, the project manager is well-advised to bring not only details and implications of the project’s problem status, but also suggestions on how senior management can help. Here is my advice on how to ask for help (and get it):

  • Focus on facts of the problem and the short and long term implications. Do NOT blame anyone or any circumstance.
  • Explain technical challenges or roadblocks in layman’s terms not technical jargon. It may be obvious to you and the team that integrating a legacy database presents unforeseeable challenges, however you will need to explain why and give examples to help non-technical managers understand.
  • Develop at least two optional approaches to dealing with the current situation. For each option specify:
    • State what needs to be done
    • Delineate new resources or processes are required to implement the approach
    • Propose a revised schedule and risk management plan
    • Quantify methods to assess progress and success
    • Remember that senior managers consider solutions (and all decisions) as a trade-off between cost and benefits. Give them the information they need to make a strategically and tactically correct decision
  • Summarize any actions that result from the meeting and follow up through email or personal visits with key decision makers.

If you have succeeded or failed to gain help in solving project problems, share your strategies and recommendations.

4 Responses to “Asking for Help”

  1. TBoehm30 Says:

    Sometimes I feel like explaining the problem would take longer than actually solving the problem. My knowledge of the project is specific, but senior management has general knowledge. After a 3 hour meeting to explain the problem, I could have just documented the issue and directed the team toward a solution. If it worked then senior management would never have known and the project would still look good.

  2. Bruce Fieggen Says:

    I condition my team members to bring up problems early so that they can be solved. Then we, as a team, focus on what impact this problem has on the schedule, the cost, the scope and the quality of the project. Then we brainstorm at least 3 alternatives to each problem. We analyze the impact each of these alternatives has on the above project constraints. Finally, we come up with a recommendation.
    So now our managers ask us, “Don’t come to us with problems, come to us with alternatives and a recommendation.”
    We even have a graphic tool we use to make the alternative analysis easier.
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/39399245/09_problemsolving-tool.doc

  3. A Guest Blog from Starbucks Coffee Company - Fierce Leadership Development and Training Blog Says:

    […] How to ask for help (from the Fear No Project Blog) […]

  4. Help! Starbucks Coffee Company blog for Fierce, Inc. Says:

    […] How to ask for help (from the Fear No Project Blog) […]


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