Project Management Insights: Flailing Projects Can Be Turned Around
It doesn’t have to go down in the books as an epic fail.
You’re a solid project manager and have several successes to your name. You know from experience that not everything runs entirely smoothly, and you have to be flexible for the occasions when things don’t go as expected. When there’s a hiccup, however, you don’t lose your cool; you’ve got this. Usually it’s because you’ve had ownership of the project from the start. You welcome the responsibility that comes with the position, and the firm trusts you to lead.
In fact, they trust you so much, they’ve asked you to turn around a project that has become an absolute mess. Everything that could have gone wrong has: the budget is blown, the schedule is off course, the client is upset, and the team is uncoordinated and disinterested. Everyone wishes they could just start over or pretend it all didn’t happen. The only option, it seems, is for you to step in as requested and attempt to salvage some time, money and reputation.
Fortunately for you, saving a troubled project has only two ingredients:
1. Leadership backing. In exchange for the big ask that you take on this mess of a project, principals need to pledge to get you what you need when you need it. If that means more hours, swapping around team members and swarming attention to new deadlines, then so be it. Now is not the time to be stingy, dwell on regrets or point fingers. The commitment is still to meet client goals.
2. Team alignment. The project team members hold a good deal of project knowledge. Sifting the facts from the frustration is essential, as is building back their confidence and getting their buy-in. They may suspect a new project manager will question their competence and seek out a scapegoat. Instead, provide encouragement and roll up your sleeves among them to illustrate this is a true team effort.
Now that these are established, what comes next?
• Where are we? Ask about the status from everyone involved. This will give you a wide perspective from which to start anew. It also will reveal if the team is on the same page. Again, focus on goals and what needs to be done rather than speculation or negative discussion that will lead to backward-looking distraction.
• Where do we want to go? How or when will everyone know they have successfully turned the project around? What definition are we using? Are these our terms? The client’s? It is possible to salvage the client relationship and be proud of the project outcome, too.
• How will we get there? The original project plan will serve as a good reference point, but it likely will require a major refresh or overhaul. Identify the immediate needs, deliverables, personnel, timeframes and quality control to be followed. “Nice to haves” can come later. Again, don’t overthink how much of a financial pinch this will entail. Leadership made the pledge, and the team made the mental commitment.
• Let’s do it. With all the elements visible and communicated, the team can hit the reset button in earnest. Working consistently and positively moves it forward one step at a time. The small wins are vital at this point. The team sees strides instead of stalling. As project manager, you’re sharing information, encouraging and collaborating.
• We did it. Watching the project slowly right itself is as much an accomplishment as any other— maybe even more so—because everyone approached this with utter dread. This is a celebration for everyone: the principal who stayed committed, the team that kept going and the project manager who led it out of the abyss.
The project may be back on track, but it may not necessarily be 100-percent completed. If that’s the case, you’ll be practicing standard project management. To everyone’s relief, this environment is much less stressful. Take a breath, follow through to the end, but also keep a watchful eye out for any red flags. Don’t let your guard down after all this hard work.
Hopefully you won’t experience too many of these scenarios in your project-management lifetime. However, if you do, understand there is a pathway out, and it is a total team effort.