There are several things that can go wrong to cause a project to fail, such as poor quality, scope creep, unforeseen risks, unclear customer expectations, lack of planning or execution etc.  The risk of project failure may increase during transitions where newly assigned project managers inherit their predecessor’s projects.  Sometimes cancelling or closing out a bad project isn’t an option on the table and it is necessary to carry out the deliverables.  Taking heed to the following guidelines can help you turn around project performance even when it is impossible to finish on time and within budget.

1.       Understand sunk costs – Sunk costs are historical costs that cannot not be recovered.  Often project leaders and sponsors exhaust energy mourning over sunk costs.  Regardless whether the sunk cost is due to poor vendor performance, low morale, or a difficult customer, the fact is that it occurred in the past.  The objective from here is to learn from the mistakes, cut the non-sense and move on. 

2.       Stop blaming the previous manager – The former project manager may have been a complete idiot. However, burning calories focusing on his/her incompetence is not going to help your cause.  When someone is not performing well, it soon becomes obvious to most stakeholders.  If they are aware of the prior leader’s reputation, then it is pointless to even reference the former manager.  Just as you would not want to waste quality time complaining about an ex-lover on a new date, likewise do your best to forget about the old guy.  Besides, the former leader may have been excellent, however, they could have faced challenges and climates that no longer exist but would have been insurmountable for anyone at that point in time. 

3.       Identify gaps in the project plan – A project plan may be very simple or complex, still a plan should be in place.  It is not uncommon to find that a project has not been updated or that an initiative has been underway quite some time without a plan in existence.  Identify any major gaps and get them filled immediately.  Basic elements to the plan should be very explicit and straight forward such as; the scope statement, key deliverables, schedule/timeline, team members, budget, and communication plan. 

4.       Establish a new baseline – If actual project results veer of track, it may be necessary to establish an entire new baseline.  This requires revisiting customer requirements, the overall scope, schedule and costs.  As stated in item #1, prior costs are sunk costs.  Trying to manage to a futile budget and metrics can be self-defeating.  To resurrect the project, a new baseline is needed.  Even if senior leadership does not formerly approve a new budget, it is best to forecast the overage where the project is expected to land and focus the project team’s attention on the forecast versus a budget goal that is unattainable. 

5.       Reassess team capabilities – To get a project back on track, it means managers must be honest about individual performance, leverage each members strengths, and remove obstacles that could impede their progress.  This also means re-evaluating in-house versus outsourcing capabilities and getting the most out of suppliers.  It may be necessary to reassign team members to other projects, or inducing the amount vendors to meet a critical deadline.  Reassessing team capabilities and needs early and often will definitely payoff in the long run.

6.       Over communicate – Communication serves as the vertebrae for every organization regardless of its size or structure.  Increasing your communication efforts by twice as much may still prove to be insufficient.  Communication goes beyond sending emails and posting memos, or updating stakeholders to a distribution list.  It includes face to face meetings, developing processes to receive feedback, establishing the proper meeting cadence, and capturing the “voice of the customer”.  Often the project’s strategic intent, current status, and key metrics never reach the front line workforce, which may consist of bargaining unit employees.  Maintaining a dialogue between the employees who develop the winning strategy and the employees who execute the strategy is critical.   If it feels like the communication level is a bit overkill, then it is probably just enough.

7.       Add risks to the agenda - While it is important to avoid or mitigate risks, it is impossible to avoid talking about them.  Project risks should be discussed at every milestone review and perhaps even sooner.  When teams are candid about the risks factors impacting them, then they will be in a better position to plan scenarios and execute successfully as trigger events occur.  When we know it is likely to rain, it only makes sense to carry an umbrella. 

8.       Toot your own horn – It can be dangerous to declare victory too soon, however, when things are going well it should be acknowledged.  There is certainly nothing wrong with patting yourself on the back for reaching a milestone, or congratulating a team as they overcome challenges.  More importantly, as status updates are provided to other stakeholders, it is important to highlight risks as well as accomplishments and use those positive experiences in momentum to achieving the overall project goal. 

The next time you inherit an under-performing project, or find your project group facing objectives that stand no chance of being attained, consider the steps above and get your team jump started again.  As your project progresses, send us a note and let us know how things have improved.



06/27/2013 8:48am

Thanks for the advice. This makes sense.

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    Willie Smith has over 15 years leadership experience.  He is a certified Project Management Professional, (PMP) and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.  Willie also holds a B.S, and MBA from Purdue University.


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