I’d be fibbin’ if I told you that every project I ran into was a successful one. I’ve gone in to rescue troubled projects and I’ve been on the receiving end of troubled projects. Neither experience is fun; you’re dealing with a lot of stress and scrutiny beyond the usual project management challenges. This is particularly true when IT projects have evolving and changing requirements, or the assigned resources don’t have the key skills to do the job effectively.
Hopefully, you haven’t found yourself in a struggling project, but if you do—and it does come with the territory—here are five ways to survive a failing project.
When a project is in trouble, assume nothing and communicate vigilantly. Here are a couple of vital actions to take to keep all the information steams up to date.
Hold weekly steering committee meetings
On troubled projects, it’s critical to keep your senior management informed. On healthy projects, steering committee meetings usually occur monthly. On troubled projects, it’s not unrealistic to have weekly steering committee meetings especially if additional help and issues need escalation across the organization. The challenge is recognizing when your project is in trouble and when you should start changing the meeting cadence.
Send weekly wrap up emails
At the end of the week (whether that’s Friday at 5 p.m., or Sunday afternoon), send out a summary of key open issues and accomplishments. Drafting an email to your stakeholders that summarizes the status of key issues and accomplishments keeps everyone informed. It also demonstrates that you’re actively managing the issues.
Communicating frequently doesn’t always mean you need to escalate every issue or inform the stakeholders on every project nuance. I’ve been in organizations where I was encouraged to escalate everything, but this behavior creates more organizational churn and chaos than a well thought-out request. If you’re going to hit your target, you need to plan and aim correctly before firing the bullet. Escalating frequently creates more noise and more work for you to manage.
2. Get the right body, not just anybody
When a project gets into trouble, the knee jerk reaction is to start throwing people at the problem. For example, one of my past projects involved sending data with many internal systems and external systems. On a large project with several hundred interfaces it’s common to have an interface lead. The project team was challenged with finding the right interface lead and the management response was to start assigning anyone to the project who was available. There were more delays, as the project team wasn’t able to get the right resource with the right skills for the job.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, clearly define the resource skill requirements and resist the temptation to accept a less skilled resource in hopes the person can learn on the job (this definitely isn’t the time for that). On a troubled project, you don’t have time to train junior-level team members. You need people with experience to get the job done.
3. Manage by inch-stones not milestones
Milestones are useful when the project is progressing well and the team needs to identify long-range target dates for the major phases of the project. In a troubled project, you need to manage by inch-stones rather than milestones. Inch-stones include answers to the following questions:
What are the top three things that need to be done today?
What are the top three things that need to be accomplished this week?
What are the key tasks to move the project forward?
If a project team has a system-testing milestone that needs to start one month from now and the project is already showing a two-week slip because the code isn’t ready, focusing on the testing milestone isn’t going to help move the project forward. Instead the team needs to look at the critical unfinished tasks that need to be done that day or week to in order to start testing. If the code isn’t ready, worrying about a system test milestone doesn’t add much value.
4. Stop multi-tasking
Multi-tasking is a productivity killer. You’ll hear the management mantra that we should all “multi-task across projects” but this simply creates more distraction. Focus on one task, complete it and move to the next one. If your current task is blocked, then move to the next task and revisit the first one later. In a troubled project, you need to focus on those top three things that need to be accomplished that day or week. If you’re distracted with multi-tasking on multiple projects, you’ll lose focus.
This can be a difficult conversation when resources are tight and employees are encouraged to go above and beyond to meet an “outstanding” performance rating. However, if projects are properly prioritized in the portfolio and one of those key projects are in trouble, the project manager and the senior management team need to agree on the priority. I’ll admit it can be a difficult discussion.
5. Get your career parachute ready
Troubled projects don’t always have a happy ending. If you have communicated frequently with senior management, staffed the project with the right people and focused on critical tasks, then you will have demonstrated you’ve taken all the right steps to improve the project.
However, despite all your efforts, the project might not be able to achieve its original end-date. Depending on the management team, this may or may not be a cause for concern. I’ve been in supportive organizations and I’ve seen organizations that look to place the blame on the project manager.
If the project can’t recover and you think your job is in jeopardy, start networking within your company and seek a transfer or start reconnecting with your professional network. The project may be sinking, but your career doesn’t need to a casualty.
And don’t forget the one silver lining of troubled projects—if you pay close attention there’s a lot to learn.
If you have a project horror-story you’ve lived through, share your survival tactics in Comments.