Troubled Projects: First Steps

StandardImageStepping into a troubled project might be one of the most challenging undertakings a project manager can take on. This is especially true if you are brought in after the project is in trouble as the new PM or as the “fix it” adviser to the current PM. In either position you will need to walk softly in the initial stage of correction so as to not step on already bruised toes.   As with any endeavor, managing a troubled project necessitates specific actions and activities be completed in sequence.  Following a clear methodology will ensure project stakeholders, sponsors, and team members are all ultimately on the same page with you and working toward the same goals. 

 The first step should always be a Project Audit. The Audit is critical and should be thorough, pragmatic and unbiased. You will be looking for and at all the project artifacts, including the Charter, Project Management Plan (PMP), Scope Statement, Project Schedule, WBS, Risk Management Plan (RMP), Work Authorizations, Resource Planning, Schedule Management and Reporting, Progress Reporting, Status Reporting, Milestones Achievement, Scope Changes, Integrated Change Control, Quality; and in addition all of the other artifacts both formal and informal that have been collected and maintained by the project since its inception.  In my experience, Audits usually find three problems consistently:

  • Original assumptions were not fully vetted or aligned with organizational strategies at time of project authorization.
  • Project ‘rules of engagement’ have not been adhered to by all team members or leadership.
  • Leadership is not fully engaged in project sponsorship and communication of goals to all team and organizational members.

There are often many other reasons for troubled projects, these three though are generally at the top of the list.

Upon delivering your findings to project stakeholders and sponsors you will also need to provide a case for change and a plan for recovery. The rule of Project Audits should always be, never identify the problems without providing clear solutions and a path forward. Taking each of your findings you will need to address the root cause first, whether it is organizational behavior, lack of necessary resources, or improper scoping during the initial phase of the project; each issue will require additional detail to include impact on project and finally recommended solution and expected impact on project. Be clear in presenting your findings what costs are involved in implementing all of the recommendations and what benefits the organization should expect to receive. The project sponsors and stakeholders will need to take a decision at this point whether to implement all or some of your recommendations; alternatively, at this stage they may decide to terminate the project. 

Assuming that termination is not the selected option the next step in managing a troubled project will nearly always be re-planning.  The project schedule is only one piece of the Project Plan and should never be thought of as the entire plan.  The Project Management Plan performs a much broader function; it is the “how we work” rather than the “what work we will do and when we will do the work”. Since you have already performed the Audit this part of the Troubled Project Management step should be easier for you.  You will re-constitute the Project Management Plan with the project team. 

First review the Scope Statement and either confirm that it is valid with any changes that have been accepted or re-scope the project and ask for approval of the new Scope Statement from the Sponsor.  Next revise the WBS including all Activity Sequencing, Resource Sequencing, Duration Estimates, and finally the Project Schedule itself.  When this is complete compare it to the current baseline, is the revision substantially different from the baseline?  What are the differences?  What are the impacts on the Triple Constraints of Budget, Schedule, and Scope?    With this assessment in hand return to the Sponsor and request approval to proceed with the new project schedule, additional budget, and required resources. 

Re-baseline your schedule!

Finally revise your Project Management Plan to reflect new and improved project management processes for the following:  Communications, Risk Management, Issues and Action Item Management, Schedule Management, Quality Management, Conflict Management, Resource Management, Stakeholder Management, Integrated Change Control.  When the revisions are completed and the project Sponsor has accepted the changes you have one more step to take and you will be on your way. 

HOLD YOUR PROJECT KICK-OFF.  It is not business as usual until you Kick-Off the project with the new project processes, procedures, standards, and expectations in place.  It is likely that you have new members on your team. It is also likely that moral on the project has been less than ideal while you have been going through this transition.  The Kick-Off will give you the opportunity to revitalize the team and introduce them to the new and improved approach.  The sponsor should be there to communicate commitment.  This meeting should be upbeat and positive.  Your job from here forward is to manage the project under the new terms of engagement; no recriminations for past mistakes and no looking back.  You are going forward.

The idea is that it’s nearly impossible to “recover” a troubled project if you continue to do what has been done before.  If the project is truly troubled, you must get to the root cause of the problem and correct it.

Not all project will require a full restart, your audit will guide you to the right answer. Whether a full restart or a gentler course correction, the Project Audit is always the first step. Gaining an understanding of where the problems exist and addressing them specifically put projects back on track.

About lvalentinedean

Twenty years in the trenches hasn't stopped me from being passionate about the profession of project management.
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2 Responses to Troubled Projects: First Steps

  1. Red says:

    Better to renegotiate than scrap, in my experience more often than not.

    • Most times, yes. Though there are times when the organization truly does take on a project which is entirely out of alignment with their strategy and goals. Been there and done that. Some day, I might even tell that story.

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