How to take over troubled projectsI have a reputation for being called in to take over programs and projects that are in trouble. Usually the symptoms for calling me in, include the following:
- Lack of confidence in the current project management team, due to missed deadlines, outdated and disorganized project plans.
- Exasperation from executives being forced to become involved in low-level project issues and having to put out fires that should have been resolved by the project management team.
- Frequent surprises with requests for additional funding, or delays by the current project team, usually due to lack of insight to the progress of the project.
- Hallway conversations of performance issues from peers of the project management team.
There are no silver bullets in program management. If a program or project is in trouble, I have learned from experience to look for the following while assessing the state of the program.
- Passive Aggressive Behaviour from the current project management team. They may have been directed to assist you in assessing the project, but they are very conscious that your presence negatively impacts the year-end bonus. Hence, you will find yourself excluded from important meetings and conversations. I have found the best way to deal with this is to remove the employee from the project, because this behaviour isn't correctable.
- Disruptive team protocols,norms and behaviours. In order to have a functioning team, the members must look out for each other and go the extra mile to cover for each other when a team member calls in sick. Instead, I find that troubled projects are usually populated with people who hoard knowledge and throw each other under the bus.
- Incompetence. There is no other way to say this. If a project manager habitually comes to meetings late, is always disorganized and doesn't know the scope or schedule of a project, then it must be addressed. Offer training for the individual, or manage the individual out of the organization. Do not tolerate incompetence.
- Poor project management disciplines. A project that doesn't have a Project Charter, Project Plan, and current Risk and Issues logs, is unlikely to succeed. These artifacts do not guarantee project success, but existence of these artifacts indicates a well managed project.
- Low levels of professionalism. To my embarrassment, I have been caught out when I was called in to assess and rescue a program and told that the projects all project management artifacts, including project plans. However, upon review, I learned that the project plans had holes in them - large enough to drive an Abrams tank through. When assessing a project in trouble, don't assume that the current project team operates with the same level of professionalism that you do.
- Dig deep when reviewing the program financials. You just don't know what expenses are lurking under the covers, and which invoices were submitted but never paid.
- Make sure that there is a single source of truth regarding scope. Meet with your business sponsor and executive sponsor to make sure that scope is captured accurately and defined completely. I have figurative scars for finding out the hard way that project scope was never completely defined, even though the project teams thought that they were working on the complete scope.
When assessing troubled projects and programs, you can't assume anything. In my experience, you are usually better off by scrapping the exiting project plans and project team structure and starting afresh with a trusted team than trying to rehabilitate the existing project team.
When it comes to assessing and rescuing a troubled program, nothing is at it appears at first. You need extra vigilance to look under rocks and question everything that appears to be neat and tidy. I have found that I am called in for a reason, and the lack of executive confidence is always warranted, even if not always clearly articulated.
When rescuing a project, beware. It is constantly exciting and challenging. This is why I love coming in to rescue troubled projects.