Many of us dream of becoming the director for a major program with numerous projects, a staff, and an opportunity to create something from nothing. In this dream, which I know I’ve had on more than one occasion, you get to select your team, develop the processes and procedures that will be used by the team, and shape the development of the Project Management Office. The ideal situation.

Unfortunately, this dream is just that for most project managers—a dream. More often than not, you won’t be able to pick your team, establish the processes, or develop the PMO. Instead, you’ll find yourself doing bits and pieces of these at the same time you’re scrambling to deal with a program that’s already under way.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of initiating a program one time. The remainder of the programs I inherited during the planning or the benefits delivery phase. Far from ideal, becoming involved in a project or a program that is already underway requires one to focus more diligently on a few key elements.

Taking Lead of a Project Underway

Project management is challenging regardless when you assume the leadership role. There’s a mountain of literature written about the skills effective project managers leverage when leading a project and it all seems to assume that you’re in the game from the start. This won’t always be the case. For example, maybe you’re hired into a new project manager role on an already awarded contract or you’re called on to replace a non-performing project manager.

7 Knowledge Areas for Leadership on Projects Underway

Taking lead on a project already underway relies on the same skills that you’d call on if you’d been on the project from the beginning. However, there are seven specific knowledge areas that are most important and will require your attention.

1. Evaluate the governance framework.

One cannot assume that every project or program will have a well-defined governance structure in place by the time it gets underway. Regardless of what phase you join a project, make sure you evaluate the governance framework to determine if it’s properly structured.

This means that the right stakeholders are involved at the right levels; the right meeting frequency is in place; there are clear terms of reference spelling out roles and responsibilities of each echelon of the framework; and decisions are being made at the appropriate level. On complex projects, it’s vitally important that governance is appropriately structured so that senior stakeholders are informed at the right time and in the right fashion for making timely decisions.

2. Discover the lessons learned.

A project underway will have generated some lessons learned, so find out what these are. Talk with project team members and key stakeholders who have been with the project since initiation to determine what the key positives and negatives have been on the project. Looking at lessons learned while the project is still underway will help determine if there are possible adjustments to be made that have been missed by the staff.

You can also bring in lessons learned from other projects you’ve successfully managed, or best practices used by other project teams, to bolster performance on your project. In short, don’t assume that performance enhancements have been applied by the project team. Look for opportunities and work with your team to implement them.

3. Develop relationships.

Project managers spend the vast majority of their time communicating with other people and developing relationships. When you’re involved on a project from concept onwards, you have the opportunity to develop relationships with other stakeholders while the project is taking shape.

When you join a project underway, however, you have to insert yourself into relationships that have already formed. The longer a project has been underway, the more difficult this is, as team members have more shared experience together.

Take time to identify the most influential stakeholders. Then, focus on developing relationships with each of them. The process for doing this will vary, so you need to apply your emotional intelligence skills so as not to make any social or professional mistakes.

I like to start with informal office calls in one-on-one or small-group settings. I follow this with working lunches or group dinners. The main goal is developing rapport with the most influential people outside of formal project meetings. The benefit from doing this is a more cordial working relationship during formal meetings and a greater likelihood of collaboration when challenging situations arise.

4. Establish yourself in meetings.

Early in my Air Force career I heard the saying, “Never let your lack of experience keep you from speaking with authority.”

I’m not entirely certain, but I don’t think this was a joke. As a second lieutenant, you lack real-world experience in leading people and dealing with situations. Yet, there you are, the officer in charge with people looking at you to lead them through the situation.

I think this saying applies for the project manager that joins a project underway. You’ll immediately be looked at as the person in charge and depending on the situation, you may be called on to make key decisions right away. This requires you to establish yourself quickly in meetings and other venues so that everyone knows you’re on the task.

This doesn’t mean you need to be overbearing or not listen to other people! Quite the contrary. You’ll need to really listen to others and take their inputs for consideration (see the last point below).

5. Lead the change.

Regardless of what you do as the new project manager on a project underway, you’ll initiate change. The very fact that you’re now in the project manager role is a change, so any adjustments you make in process or procedure will be a change from business as usual.

To ensure your changes are successful, be cognizant of the environment under which the project is functioning and adjust your leadership style to accommodate this. You want your changes to make a positive impact on the performance of the project, so you can’t afford to have them derail because of delivery.

Change management is an essential part of project management. It’s also a key component of effective leadership on projects already underway.

6. Focus on providing value.

As you assess the project’s performance and the state of your project team, look for opportunities to provide value. This means looking for underserved areas of expertise or leadership. Perhaps the project has lacked someone with a strong sense of project management fundamentals; here’s an opportunity to engage your team in applying standard processes and procedures. Maybe your team hasn’t been properly recognized for successful performance; here’s an opportunity to gain senior stakeholder recognition and develop team confidence.

Don’t invest time adding value to activities that are already well-served by your staff or other stakeholders. It’s not only inefficient, but may very will alienate some of the very people you want to build relationships with because you’re perceived to be taking their role! Consistently look for opportunities to serve.

7. Listen and observe…then act.

I’ve saved the most important skill for leading a project underway for last. If you’re successful at accomplishing this, you stand a better-than-even chance of being successful on the other six. Effective project managers tend to have a penchant for taking action. That’s what makes them successful when others are paralyzed by indecision.

When you begin leading a project that’s already underway, however, you need to take pause before acting. Most issues that arise will have a history preceding them and you need to know that history to act effectively. Just as important, project team members and influential stakeholders will develop a more positive assessment of your leadership if you’re perceived to listen, observe, and then act.

Face it, none of us are impressed with someone who steps into a leadership role and immediately acts without the full picture. There are only a few situations where this is warranted and you’ll know it if you’re in one.

7 Actions to Take When Joining a Project Underway was last modified: November 20th, 2017 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP