Gray – even the spelling of the word itself is unclear! Is it Gray or Grey? Experts cannot agree. Much like gray/grey areas in life, there is confusion – no hard and fast rule for how to spell the word. Ironic, eh? In the ever-evolving worlds of Program and Project Management, especially with bigger and more complex projects, Project Managers are not free from confusion wrought by the many gr(a)y areas we encounter. Processes, methodologies, best practices – these principles are often based on summary findings, cover the 80%, and are not always based on concrete facts that help us to solve the gray areas impacting our projects. Fact is hard to come by regarding how to solve an issue or gray area, and each of us have no doubt endured painful times throughout our career mulling over a particular project gray area. How should I handle this project issue? What do I do with this Catch-22 situation? How can we deliver with these nebulous requirements? The bottom line – Project Managers should look to address such situations by falling back on core principles that are tried and true in our arena.

  1. Communicate. Ask questions of your team, and raise the challenge for discussion. How often are PM's the decision makers? Well, sometimes we have to be, but in an ideal situation there is always a role defined for the decision the project requires. If a design-related decision, seek your Engineer or Architect. If a scope, schedule, or budget altering decision, ensure involvement from your Project Sponsor. It is okay to offer up a solution, but do not pose it as 'the answer'. Offer it up as a possibility to get good discussion or negotiation started. Then, be sure to facilitate the decisions across the impacted members of the team. Be sure you have achieved alignment, and reported out that alignment – a stakeholder or sponsor may disagree, and you may then find yourself back at square one. Alignment can only be achieved by effectively communicating, and, while 'step 1' may be obvious to check with your Analyst regarding the clarity of those requirements, 'step 2' and 'step 3' to harden the decision with project leaders & stakeholders are less obvious and often not pursued in an efficient manner.
  2. Lead. Be an agent to drive the team towards an answer, don't just pin it on a project resource. Similar to communication, you cannot hold back and sit on an open item, you must be proactive. You have to lead and drive this gray area to black or white, and that takes the motivation to drive the right people to defining solutions, making key decisions, and ultimately establishing the path forward. You are a PM because you have capabilities to organize through this chaos, to lead others through the challenge, and to foster accountability. Use these attributes frequently and be that leader. You will gain team buy-in, increase your leverage, and earn respect – and the project will benefit with a firm result. Challenges are always opportunities to lead.
  3. Assess. Review background details and available information. If you can, look to supplement issue resolution or key decision making with actual documentation, relevant data, or historical findings. Fact-find and share information, to ensure everyone is armed with the appropriate data. Don't be afraid to poll peers, project team members, or stakeholders on their thoughts about this challenge you are facing. It cannot hurt, rather, it will help you to formulate your understanding of what is required, and propel you to be confident in your path forward. Data and information are your friends. Be the coach looking to equip your players, while your quarterback is scanning the field for the right option.
  4. Document. Write it down, email it, formally log it, etc. Seek to identify the relevant documentation, or the gap, if the needed documentation does not exist. Ensure the documentation is updated accordingly with the final outcomes. It's a simple input/output scenario. Communicating and leading will guide the team to a solution, but that does not mean your job is complete. Make sure that output is formally defined and logged in the appropriate document or repository. Adjust scope and requirements, if necessary, based on the new finding. If the defined solution does not feed into a formal deliverable, save the email chain or meeting minutes that informed the decision to create the paper trail. Or, one of my personal favorites, create a decision log which will help to track these kinds of decision-based challenges throughout the project. Document, document, document.

Communicate, Lead, Assess, Document. CLAD. Each of these solutions bond to ensure you are CLAD with proverbial Project Manager teflon. These principles vest Project Managers in response to the unclear project items we encounter, and allow us to forge a path forward. They vest us in the case of questions from management or project sponsors, and help us in project closing when evaluating lessons learned. Beyond the application of these tactics to gray areas, we can all seek to remember these very basic rules in every day project management dealings – even when project proceedings are clear. Very often it is not our knowledge of a methodology or process that drives us through an issue, rather our unique capabilities as Project Managers. These innate abilities we've honed through Father Time often prove to be most valuable when facing complex challenges, and CLAD very well sums up a strategy you can fall back on to solve gray areas that you may encounter.