For those of us in the business of Project Management, the ‘standard’ risks are second nature to us: scope creep, schedule compression, resource unavailability, schedule slippage, cost overruns.

However, what makes someone a good PM is their reaction to the unexpected.

At Arbutus Solutions, we’ve all been managing projects for years and have seen things that Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t imagine.

Yet it still comes as a shock when the unexpected happens. Especially when projects are progressing along (relatively) smoothly.

At the start of a project, the ‘standard’ risks are second nature to us: scope creep, schedule compression, resource unavailability, schedule slippage, cost overruns. So why do these things shock us when they happen? Who knows? I’ll leave the psychology to Dr. Phil.

What’s important, as the Project Manager, is our reaction to the unexpected.


I recently heard of a project which was moving along reasonably well. The sponsor and PM were actively engaged. Though there had been some schedule challenges in the Requirements Definition stage, the team was stepping up to recover the schedule as Design Stage began. And then presto, like a bolt from the blue, the lead Subject Matter Expert was removed from the project. Naturally, the SME had several critical path deliverables due that very week. It’s a natural reaction to assume the worst, panic, and set one’s hair on fire.

If you give yourself some time to calm down, you’ll soon see that the loss of a resource, even a critical resource, need not necessarily threaten the overall project. There are worse things.

So get a coffee, find a quiet place, breathe, and put your objective goggles on.

Start by quantifying the immediate implications. Likely, those critical path items are at risk. How can those risks be mitigated? Are there substitute resources? Do circumstances permit access to the critical resource for task completion, or perhaps knowledge transfer? If so, you’re ninety percent of the way to a solution. If not, what workarounds do you have? What substitute resources are available? Can you adjust scope or schedule? Is overtime an option? Can scope be deferred? Can work be contracted out? Can quality be compromised? Can you temporarily trade resources with another project? How about brainstorming with the team or with your peers for creative solutions? What have you done before in similar circumstances?

I was fortunate to learn the ‘no-one is indispensable’ lesson early in my career. As one of a few junior resources in a small workgroup, we all answered to the Team Lead. Our Team Lead was personable enough, though he kept the plum assignments for himself (they were too complex for the juniors) and was stingy with knowledge transfer. He kept himself in a good position.

One day, he wasn’t there anymore. Our immediate reaction? Panic. No-one knew how to do the things that the Team Lead did routinely. After some accelerated learning curves (think deep end of the pool, sans water-wings) all us juniors stepped up.

We learned more over the next two months than in the previous two years of ‘tutelage’. Like the proverbial vanishing hole in the bucket of water, no-one is indispensable.


Embrace the opportunities that challenges present. Search for the benefits of unexpected events. I bet you will find them.