So, You Inherited a Failing Project…Here’s What to Do Next
Dear Elizabeth: I’ve inherited a sinking ship of a project. I didn’t know things were so bad when I took it on, and now it looks like I have a turnaround situation on my hands. No one seems to know what we need to do, the schedule is totally unrealistic, the client is unhappy, and team morale has plummeted, even since I got involved. It feels like we’re in freefall! How do I right this project before it takes us all down?
Act quickly and decisively is the short answer!
You don’t have long to make positive changes to the project, because, as you’ve already realized, the situation is pretty bad.
Talk to the Client
First up, let’s be honest with the client about how things are going. This isn’t going to be an easy conversation, but they probably already know that the project isn’t an amazing showcase for brilliant delivery. They will have picked up on the situation and are probably worried that they are throwing money away on this project.
This is the same whether it’s an external client and you work in an agency or consulting environment or your client is a team manager who sits down the hall, working for the same company as you.
Internal clients are even more likely to be aware of the issues with their project, and will have the same concerns:
- Am I going to get what I asked for?
- When am I going to get it?
- How much of my budget is being wasted on this circus?
So, have that difficult conversation, and let the client know that you are aware of the issues and that you have a plan to resolve them. You’ll keep them updated with new developments and they’ll be involved every step of the way (if they want to be). Your objective is to give them confidence in your ability to turn this project around.
However, you can also use the conversation to ask them if they really want the project.
Frankly, the easiest way out of this mess is to shut the project down and move on to other things, and perhaps that’s an option if the client has moved past the point of needing the project. Just a thought!
Rebaseline the Requirements
One of the issues you mentioned was that no one seems to know what to do. The only way you are going to address this is if you go back to basics and revisit the requirements. Get the client involved in this work too.
Prioritize the requirements. There will be some elements you absolutely have to have, some that will be optional for now and some that can be put on hold for a while, which you can describe as being packaged into a Phase 2 of the current project, or a future release.
Go back to the original requirements documentation (if there was any) and review that, or the user stories. Create a new, hopefully streamlined, set of requirements for the project. Now you can create clarity around what this project is delivering, and that will have positive benefits for the client, the team and you.
Update the Schedule
With that new improved view of clear requirements, it’s time to update your schedule. You want to get to a position where there is clarity about how long things are going to take and what has to happen in what order.
It’s fine to have some elements of uncertainty in a schedule, and using dynamic tools will help you manage that.
Sometimes schedules become out of date because the uncertainty inherent in doing new work isn’t factored in. For example, if you look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for how long it takes to do a certain piece of work, you can calculate the most likely scenario, but still allow for the others to be true too.
Dynamic scheduling gives you more flexibility, gives you more chance of hitting milestones, and lets you have an intelligent conversation with your client about what are realistic delivery dates.
Related: What is Dynamic Scheduling?
Get the team involved in planning. They should be estimating their tasks and committing to dates. You can also look at resource availability to make sure you have people who are free to do the work at the required time. Remember that people’s availability can change, with sickness absence, for example, or simply that another task does take longer than expected for whatever reason. Keep an eye on resource allocation as you go through the project and make sure you know how to quickly reallocate work if necessary.
Schedules aren’t ever fixed in stone, so your team still has to acknowledge that there could be changes. However, once you’ve been through this exercise together, you should have a new version of the schedule that feels realistic and achievable, and that delivers what you need to do for the project.
Look at the Risks
All projects have some risk. Review whatever risk log there is in place and update it. Managing risk effectively is one way to build confidence in your client. It can also stop problems from hitting you at a later date, so spend some time looking at what’s a risk and what you are going to do about them.
Engage the Team
Now let’s look at the situation with the people on the team. There are lots of reasons for poor team morale. If you can unpick why the morale is low, you can do something about it.
Here are some common reasons:
People don’t know why they are doing what they are doing.
Fix: Talk to everyone about the project objectives, the client’s vision, the end goals, and the contribution that this project is making to the overall strategic plan.
People don’t know what they should be doing.
Fix: Define responsibilities. Set expectations about what people should be doing and make it easy for them to find out if those responsibilities change. Software that helps with resource allocation is definitely something to consider as it means team members have their assignments all in one place.
People have too much to do.
Fix: Look at the resource profile for the project and spot where people are overloaded. Balance out the work more evenly so that the tasks are more achievable. Realistically, this is going to make your project take longer unless you have other people sitting around doing very little, ready to pick up the extra tasks. But the impact of a few weeks delay over burning out good people on the team – well, I think you know what your decision should be.
The team doesn’t feel like a team.
Fix: Doing some team building! That’s easy to write but harder to do in practice. Think carefully about the kinds of activities that would engage your team. It’s not all about raft building or participating in community projects. Pizza Fridays could be the answer, but so could having common goals for the team, improving communication, and building trust.
What is underpinning all of these steps is leadership. Someone has to step up and put this project right.
And it’s going to be you.
Well-done for seeing that this needs to happen, and for being prepared to take the lead in fixing it. Take action, make decisions, bring the team along with you, and you’ll be on your way to getting this project back on track in no time.
Looking for more from Elizabeth Harrin? Download “How to Manage Chaos,” an eBook with more than 40 pages of her advice on project management and workplace conundrums.