Ask a PM: How to Recover a Project That Is Struggling in Execution

Elizabeth Harrin | April 30, 2019

Recover a Project That Is Struggling
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Dear Elizabeth: I’ve been brought into a project part-way through. The project is struggling, and my manager is expecting me to get it back on track. Are there specific tools I should be using to make it easier to pick up a project that is already in the Execution phase? How can I start to recover it when I don’t know anything about how it got into this mess?

First things first: don’t panic.

Loads of project managers find themselves in this situation. A project starts to get out of hand, the project manager leaves (or there wasn’t one in the first place), and now someone has to pick up the pieces.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Uncover the Mess

First, find out what kind of mess you are in.

The project is already in Execution, so you’ll have a team to talk to and probably some kind of requirements, business case, or project brief that would have set out what the project was supposed to deliver.

The main technique at this point is listening. Ask your new project team how they feel about the project. Find out why they think the project is in trouble. Talk to the person who brought you into the project. Why do they think the project is failing? What does “get back on track” mean to them? I’ll refer to stakeholder expectations in a bit more detail later in this article, but you need to get a clear understanding of what they are expecting you to do. Otherwise, you’ll have no chance of being able to do it.

(Your team could well be the reason the project is in trouble, so try to clarify and confirm the opinions you get from them with evidence from other sources, such as your project management software system or other colleagues in the PMO.

Review the Tools

Next, find out what tools are in use and how well they’ve been used. If there is a formal project schedule in a project management tool, call it up and see what sort of quality it is. See if the schedule has been kept up to date and whether it reflects the reality of the project you are seeing.

Do the same for any other types of project documentation, tracker, or log, including the following:

  • The risk register. What is on there and does it look adequate to you?
  • The issue log. What is being currently managed as an issue? Are there adequate plans in place to get issues closed?
  • The changelog. What changes have happened in the earlier part of the project and have they been adequately documented? What changes are open and needing resolution right now?

Check that each member of the team who needs access to your tools has the right access.

Review the Reporting

Look at what kind of project reporting was done in the past. Review the reports to see if they reflect the reality you have uncovered. If they did and the project is still in a mess, that tells you something about the quality of decision making and leadership from your project sponsor.

It’s more likely—at least, in my experience—that project reports will be sketchy or nonexistent. Make it one of your first jobs to get decent project reporting in place, preferably straight from your project management system.

Make a Plan

Now you have a good idea about the current state of the project, you need to make a recovery plan.

There are four areas to focus on.

  1. Schedule
  2. Resourcing
  3. Budget
  4. Stakeholder expectations.

If you can get those under control, the rest will follow without too much trouble.

1. Schedule

Review the schedule with your team. If it isn’t realistic, what do you need to do to make it realistic? Replan everything until you have a detailed timeline that is achievable. At the moment, don’t worry about whether that means taking longer than you originally thought. Your goal is to get a clear idea of how long it would take to deliver the current, expected scope. You can always renegotiate scope or look at crashing the schedule later.

2. Resourcing

Projects often find themselves in difficulty because they don’t have a big enough team or the team doesn’t include the right people. Look at your current project resourcing. Who else do you need in order to be able to deliver the plan?

3. Budget

Running out of money is another common reason projects go off the rails. Look at your new schedule and resource plan. Can you deliver the project scope with the budget you have left? If not, what amount of money would let you do it? If necessary, add in contingency or a risk mitigation budget to deal with any residual uncertainty.

4. Stakeholder Expectations

Finally, present the picture to your stakeholders. You need your recovery plan to align with what they are expecting, and—I need to be honest—the first version of your plan probably won’t. Some stakeholders think you can deliver the moon on a plate with the loose change from down the back of the couch. If your stakeholders are like that, you’ll have some negotiating to do!

There are lots of ways to come to an agreement on what is realistic for this project. You might be able to deliver less for the same money and in the same timeframe. Or you could extend the timeframe and use only internal resources to keep costs down. Or you could get extra funding because it’s important to hit the delivery date and you need to bring in resources to do that. You can find ways to do most things, but you need to know what is important to your project stakeholders so you can best create a plan that helps deliver against expectations.

Talk to your project sponsor and go from there.

Take Action

You’ve done a lot of listening, researching, and talking at this point, but so far all you have to show for it is a recovery plan that (hopefully) everyone is agreed to. Now is the time to put that plan into action.

Work with your team to update your project management software and start afresh where you need to.

Your most important action at this point is to not let the project get into a mess again. That means having regular team meetings to check in with progress, carrying out robust project reporting and escalations as necessary, and staying close to risk and budget management so that you spot any problems early. Address challenges and changes as they come up, making sure that you keep records of what you are doing.

It’s hard to turnaround a project, not least one that is failing through no fault of your own. Unfortunately, it’s a very common situation. Get into the detail quickly and get your hands around the issue. Soon you’ll find you have a deep knowledge of the project and the ability to deliver to the new plan.

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.

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