Projects can run into trouble and frequently do. As the poet Robert Burns might have said, even the best laid project plans often go astray.
While poor project management skills may be the single largest reason for projects going off the rail, external factors such as unexpected changes in business realities, changes in the client’s organisation and changes in the project team can all play havoc with meeting project objectives. Taking a troubled project back to ‘Green’ is essentially a fire-fighting job. If you are brought in to achieve this, you should know that early results will be expected through quick and decisive actions. While there is no silver bullet to fix ‘Red’ projects, the following tips can help you in getting started.
Start with the obvious
Establish first that the project is indeed in trouble. Cries of ‘wolf’ are occasionally heard from persons with their own agenda or from those without the complete picture. Remember that a project is usually part of a larger program, one that delivers business benefits to a paying customer, and priorities do change. If client support which is crucial for project success is missing, it could very well be the reason the project is in deep water and even be the ground for terminating the project. A quick assessment of what contractual terms or Service Level Agreements have been missed followed by a heads-up if needed to your company’s legal team on current status is advisable.
Identify root causes
Find out what the project is really suffering from. Not knowing this correctly can cause costly delays in addressing the right problems. Usual suspects include unclear or incomplete requirements, uncontrolled changes to scope of work, unrealistic timelines, unhealthy team dynamics, conflicting objectives and undependable vendors. While the reason(s) may frequently be obvious, there may be times when you have to dive deeper. Project artefacts such as timesheet data and test results can provide valuable clues as to what ails the project. Conducting closed and structured interviews of the team and taking notes can help uncover team dysfunctions. Don’t stop after a single root cause has been identified – there could be multiple causes for the project’s woes.
Are the fundamentals in place?
Since you almost certainly will not get a second chance to set things right, there is no room for error – the basics of Project Management should be in place. Ensure that a proper feasibility study was done and revalidate all assumptions, constraints and dependencies. Confirm that the full scope of work has been defined clearly and that the project team understands it. Ask for all available project plans as well as evidence of all completed work. The idea is to ensure that the situation is not worse than what has been presented to you.
In a crisis, communication with key stakeholders is critical. Build credibility by accepting ground realities as well as your own accountability. Publish a recovery roadmap and how you plan to track and report progress. Be aware of existing perceptions and how you need to tailor your communications for maximum impact. Clients, especially remote ones, may perceive silence as attempts to hide more bad news. Build confidence in your clients by demonstrating quick and early progress.
If possible, deliver your work products in small, quick-to-deploy chunks. Establishing clear communication paths and escalation procedures and publishing status reports regularly and frequently will demonstrate your seriousness and will help ease client misgivings.
Establish consensus of the criteria for successful recovery of the troubled project. If the original scope of work just cannot be completed by the agreed-upon timeline despite every effort, work with the client to identify features or functionality that can be either excluded or delivered at a later date.
This will require excellent negotiation skills and a keen understanding of your client’s business.
Be an emotionally intelligent leader
In any troubled project, the project team’s morale will have taken a severe beating. Client escalations and changes in personnel can shake the confidence of any project team. You can rally the troops by telling them of what went well so far, of the business impact of past mistakes and how their concerted efforts can pay off huge dividends. In situations where it becomes necessary to replace the current project manager, stay focused on what needs to be done to get the project back on track. Blaming the departing project manager for the current mess may alienate team members who have worked on the project so far.
Getting a project back on track is not for the faint-hearted and your own attitude matters.
Such experiences can provide valuable lessons on what went wrong, why and how you can prevent such mistakes in the future, as well as what worked in turning things around. Learn to look at a troubled project as an opportunity; by going the extra mile and thinking creatively, you can save a project and retain your client.