It’s true! Most every failed project had an earlier phase as a troubled project. I will look at techniques a Project Manager can use to gain control of a troubled project and lead a turnaround.
Does this sound familiar?
- The volume of identified defects has swamped testing or development or change control.
- No-one on the project team has a firm view of when the project will be finished.
- The budget is red and no-one knows how much additional work is still required.
- The customer is losing confidence and showing signs of buyer’s remorse.
- Team members are working excessive hours of overtime, email wars are breaking out, and personal relationships are unraveling.
- The Executive is no longer on the same page as to the status and outlook for the project.
- Vendor contractual misunderstandings are emerging and creating additional challenges.
If you have a troubled project, crisis is imminent and your world needs to change. Sooner rather than later management will request increased and more detailed updates. Customers, team members, and other internal stakeholders, such as audit, will soon be checking old project emails and asking additional questions.
Now is not the time to become defensive. You are the Project Manager, and now more than ever, the stakeholders need you to lead them through the turnaround steps to project recovery.
Step 1 – Initiate Recovery
- Seek guidance from the project team, business owner, and corporate methodology on an appropriate approach to initiate recovery planning. This step shouldn’t bog you down. Equally important as the guidance gained, is the communication you share with the stakeholders. That is, “You are leading the team into project turnaround and recovery mode.”
- In order to understand the status of the project and the nature of the recovery required, interview key stakeholders and analyze key project documentation such as project org chart, Charter, Work breakdown Structure, Issue log, Schedule (planned and actual Activities, resources, assignments, timing, and costs), and Change Log.
- Ensure the Project Team and executive reflect on the status of the project as measured against the business case benefit. Many events have occurred since original assumptions and it is possible that changes in market needs, technology, and enterprise risk, et cetera, render the existing project as unviable.
A very common mistake is to rationalize the continuation of a project due to the vast money and effort expended to date. Never use the amount of time and effort spent to date as a reason to continue a project with a broken business case – the money that has been spent can’t be recovered, however, it is possible that additional money about to be spent could be re-allocated to bring relatively more benefit to the organization.
If the business case is broken, recovery is not possible, and your job as Project Manager is to ensure an updated business case is approved or the project is stopped.
Step 2 – Planning Recovery
Assuming that the Executive, Sponsor, and Project Team are in agreement with implementing a project recovery, it is time to gather the stakeholders in a series of planning sessions. It is crucial that all stakeholders are represented in the re-planning exercise and that they are representing their relevant departments in committing to the new estimates in the plan. The Project Manager has several levers available to make change over the original project plan. I recommend working each of the three levers below.
- Reduce Scope
Facilitate review of the incomplete scope elements by the team. Identify and validate dependencies, resource requirements, and alignment to the business case. Request or impose a haircut to the scope of the project.
- Increase Schedule
Seek deep clarity on the reasons and alternatives to any “drop-dead” dates articulated by stakeholders. Review duration estimates and resource leveling for the remaining work. It is common for team members to underestimate overall time required and to spread individuals too thin across numerous tasks.
Unless the customer is willing to accept reduced deliverables, avoid planning backwards from a “drop-dead’ date as this is likely one of the factors that sent the project schedule into trouble in the first place.
- Increase Productivity
Tailor the approach to meetings, documentation, bug tracking, task assignments, and overall communication for ways to make it easier to get the work done.
A caveat – if the team is working on the wrong things or running into problems that impact others, now more than ever, it is up to the PM to surface these things and help to resolve. Now is not the time to tailor your approach by skipping status meetings or decreasing PM follow-up activities.
As an output of the re-planning exercise a new plan must be built. To ensure the new plan will not fail, it must have buy in/commitment from all appropriate stakeholders; and it must be maintained and updated rigorously by the Project Manager.
Step 3 – Execute the Plan
Over and above the tremendous efforts from those doing the work, the success of the recovery depends on the persistent monitoring and tracking of the agreed recovery schedule and issue log.
Avoid the noise – a good PM must repeatedly step-up and exert pressure to steer the team away from the many potholes that seem significant but in actuality, are not really blocking the path of the project. Conversely, the PM must be prepared to step outside their own comfort zone to influence stakeholders for the sake of the project when tasks are slipping or issues aren’t being resolved in a timely fashion.
The essence of project recovery turnaround is to demonstrate leadership and renew the team with a refreshed analysis of the situation, a re-invigorated sense of purpose and shared commitment, and a clear and detailed plan to reach the end of the project.
Finally, I note that I have not addressed reporting and metrics unique to project recovery. This will be covered at a later date.