Steps to Getting Your Chaotic Project Back on Track
It happens to projects big and small: one day, you wake up to a mess in your workspace. Sometimes it’s because of a colleague who can’t load-balance, or a budget decision that left you with fewer resources. And in a certain sense, it doesn’t matter why the chaotic project got off track – but it definitely matters how you untangle it.
Here are ten tips and tricks for managing project chaos of all sizes:
1. Recognize early warning signs and act fast!
Project snags don’t magically resolve themselves. The earlier you face these problems in the project’s lifecycle, the more options you have to resolve them.
Throughout the life of the project, get regular status updates. Encourage your team to forecast their remaining work, factoring in any project plan changes so that potential slippages are identified as soon as possible. Use collaborative project management software to keep everyone clear on where the project—and their responsibilities—stands at all times.
2. Find out what’s gone wrong.
Don’t rush into a fix without first identifying why. Without taking the time to understand the root cause of the problem, any proposed solution will be a shot in the dark. Start by talking to your team. Get their view on what’s hot and what’s not, and elicit their ideas for a solution. Your team’s engagement and commitment to any new plan going forward will be the critical contributor to its success.
And a heads-up: When the going gets tough, these information-gathering exercises can deteriorate into finger-pointing sessions so don’t let that happen. Instead, press for accurate information on how to reprioritize and restructure tasks. Team members might be reticent when it comes to delivering bad news and may choose to do so in bits and pieces. Be clear that you need all of the bad news right now, otherwise you’ll be re-structuring the plan every week as the news rolls in incrementally. Be sure to share what you find so that subsequent chaotic projects don’t suffer the same issues.
3. Revisit the original plan.
Don’t forget why you’re doing the project in the first place. Review the original business case and check in from time to time to verify that it’s still valid. It’s easy to focus on doing whatever’s needed to hit that next deadline, but be aware of what that mono-focusing does to the overall project organization (and the consequences it has on any projects that follow). You might be able to hit that deadline by throwing additional resources at it, but if this plan trashes the overall budget and subsequent delivery schedules, then that’s not the way to go. You want to play the long game here.
Don’t be afraid to consider the effects of killing the chaotic project and walking away. In reality, this is rarely an option as it can be devastating in terms of customer relations and company reputation, but you should always weigh it up. A dogged determination to organize a project and see it through is admirable, but if it makes you unable to deliver on other commitments, it can be catastrophic for your organization. Review the financials and your resources against the overall business plan. If the chaotic project isn’t going to deliver what it set out to do, then look at how you can really get there at this point in the project.
4. Review your resources.
When scheduling issues occur, it’s easy (and common practice) to simply throw extra bodies at the chaotic project and grow the team. But this rarely yields a great result. Instead, when your project hits a speed bump, consider the following options to get your project back on track:
- Make sure the right people are assigned to the right tasks. You might have to do some re-delegating and re-allocating.
- See if you can spread portions of a meaty task among a larger team so that more tasks can be worked on in parallel rather than serially.
- Identify team members that you can shift from non-critical work to critical path activities.
- Focus on competency, not availability. Add resources with the right experience and skills so they can hit the ground running.
5. Look for new solutions.
Look at the project scope, and ask yourself:
- Is there anything planned that doesn’t need to be here?
- Are there any activities or deliverables being added or gold-plated that could be dropped or scaled back without falling short of the original requirement? (A zero-tolerance approach to scope creep can often save the day).
A note of caution: When re-planning or re-prioritizing, be wary of sacrificing quality for expediency. Time can often be saved by cutting test and validation activities, but this is a false economy as you’ll end up doing the work later, post-delivery. And then it will be even costlier. Review the planned deliverables and activities and strip out the non-essentials.
6. Talk to your client.
None of us likes to share our woes with our clients, but if the relationship is sound, your client will work with you to find a solution. Get a dialogue going and develop a workable plan. Start by changing parts of the plan with your client, like the delivery schedule, or agreed-upon delivery phases, rather than overhauling the one big deadline. Who knows—you might be able to extend the overall schedule but still get your client the key deliverables when they need them.
7. Review work processes.
We’re creatures of habit. This means we might be prone to keep working on a chaotic project in the same manner we always have because it’s what we’re used to. But when your project’s struggling, it’s time to find a new, creative approach. Start by talking to your team. Let them help you identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks, and together you can come up with smarter ways to get the work done.
Another trick: Review stages are often a sticking point, so if documentation keeps getting bounced from one reviewer to another, schedule a meeting-based review. Get all the players in the room so issues can be ironed out swiftly in one session.
8. Check your project dependencies.
It’s easy to leave some project activities loosely-defined when you’re in the first stages of planning. For example, to be on the safe side you might schedule dependencies serially (e.g., development only starts when a design is fully complete, etc.). But when you’re further down the project road, it’s time to see if some of these tasks and activities can be re-scheduled in a more parallel manner.
A word of caution: Be careful of over-doing this fast-tracking. There’s always a chance you’ll have to rework things down the road, but it’s always worth looking at. Also, the client can be the bottleneck if you’re waiting on stakeholder participation in certain events, so communicate what you need and when you need it. Be clear on what impact that any delays will have on delivery. Don’t take all the pain yourself. Identify anything that’s obstructing progress on the project and work with the team to smooth out the bumps.
9. Time for overtime?
This is often the first thought when schedules start to flounder. Overtime should be a last resort—turned to when there are few to no other options left as a deadline looms. The strange truth about overtime is that it doesn’t always yield higher levels of productivity. Instead, team members who work long hours over the course of time tend to pace themselves (either consciously or sub-consciously) accordingly.
The result is that they end up applying themselves less during the non-overtime hours to save themselves for the overtime portion of their day. To combat this, try laying out a rough draft of a schedule that includes a small amount of overtime, and see if this delivers a schedule that works for the project. If it doesn’t work on paper, it won’t work in practice.
10. Keep managing.
It’s much easier to manage a team when everything’s going well. But a lot of best practices can go out the window when it’s an all-hands-to-the-pumps situation to keep things afloat. As an organized project manager, keep talking to the team and make sure everyone is clear on what’s expected of them. Roles and responsibilities can become woolly when a new plan is quickly put in place. Morale can also suffer when things go awry as team members feel they haven’t delivered—or, even if they have, people get discouraged when they’re part of a potentially unsuccessful venture. So, don’t forget to acknowledge what is going well. Check your own behavior. Leading by example, is the most crucial when times are tough.
Kevin Crump is a former Customer Success Manager with LiquidPlanner and a long-time user of the product. He is a certified PRINCE2 Practitioner with over 20 years’ experience in IT Projects and Operations management, including software development and testing, quality management system design and customer support.