No-one wants to have a failing project on their hands. But it happens. And the solution is ‘Project Turnaround’.
So, every Project Manager needs to know how to rescue a failing project. In this review article, we’ll talk you through the five project turnaround steps. These will let you recover your project and set it on an even keel.
‘If you’re going through hell; don’t stop.’
Origin unclear. Often (mis-)attributed to Winston Churchill
Before we go any further, we must first define what we mean by a failing project. I am going to choose a simple definition:
A failing project is one with severe slippage in schedule, budget, or quality.
The definition of severe (a weasel word) depends on your circumstances. The easiest way to think about it is to ask:
‘Do we still feel in control of the slippage, using our day-to-day monitoring and control processes?’
If you don’t, the slippage is severe, and you need to move into project turnaround mode.
At times of stress and trouble, you need a simple process to follow. In this article, I offer a straightforward five step Project Turnaround process.
In each of the steps, I’ll also identify what I consider to be the ‘Critical Success Factors’ for rescuing your failing project.
By the later steps, your project should no longer be failing. But your project turnaround will not be over until two things are true:
So, let’s summarize the five project turnaround steps we’ll be following. You can click the links to skip straight to each step:
Now it is time to work our way through these five Project Turnaround steps, one at a time.
We have already done two large articles on how to avoid project failure:
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This step is, first of all, about recognizing you have a problem. The sort of things you may notice, or might have alerted others to the problem are:
The second key aspect of this step is mobilizing yourself and your team to deal with the problem in the best way possible.
There is a great quote, in the film Papillon. It is said by the character, Leon Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman:
Blame is for God and small children.
Something has gone wrong… or many things. Your priority is to take ownership of the problem, rather than apportion blame. Until you, as the Project Manager, do this, nothing can happen towards rescuing your project.
The best option is usually for the project turnaround to be in the hands of the original project manager. And this is entirely possible if you do accept responsibility for it. But there is one other thing that can get in the way: you are doubtless exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. Whilst you won’t have the luxury of a proper break, you do need to take some time out to take a step back, breathe deeply, and re-energize yourself.
Some will say that we should always put our project turnaround in the hands of a new Project Manager – even a whole new team. I disagree. But, if the current PM is not able to re-energize her or himself, then there is a strong case for a new Project Manager.
It is also worth considering whether your sponsor or Project Director is able to help the situation. Or are they more likely to hinder things? If the latter is true, are you able to manage the politics to get your project a new sponsor. That can be an ideal way to help you revitalize yourself and your team, where sponsorship is a causal issue.
Do take a look at our article, ‘Resilience for Project Managers: How to Build it and Regain it‘.
You’ll be starting to notice that Critical Success Factors (CSFs) come fast and furious at the start of your project turnaround. This is a key time, and the next one is to dedicate your entire focus on the troubled project at hand. Put everything else aside.
The exception is your wellbeing. When you start the process of rescuing a failing project, it can quickly become all consuming. But this airline safety principle applies:
Put on your own Oxygen mask, before helping others.
If you don’t take time to maintain your own mental, emotional, and physical wellness, then you will not be able to serve your project well. Take a look at our article: Resilience for Project Managers: How to Build it and Regain it. And also have a listen to our podcast: Podcast: Project Management and Resilience.
At the earliest stage of your project turnaround, gather the facts, information, and knowledge you’ll need to figure out what is going on, and what are your options for recovery. Inventory all of your resources:
We’ll come back to this time after time, in this article. It’s crucial. At this stage, you need to think about two things:
It should go without saying that your next step is to analyze your situation. And for that, you’ll need to get your team together.
There’s often a sense of panic around a failing project. Your team will take its emotional response from you. So project an air of calm, rational, optimism. Avoid a ‘happy-clappy glass-half-full’ style. But, at the same time, be positive about what you hope to achieve, and show a calm, deliberate purpose to your actions.
All of your actions need to work towards steadying your team. You need to re-motivate them with a strong sense of purpose and a desire to win-out over present difficulties. Demonstrate your trust in them, their motivation, and their abilities. Acknowledge the strengths each member brings, and the successes they have had in the past. Also discuss the value and meaning that the project represents, and therefore why recovering it is important.
This won’t always be possible. But where you can, create a central workspace for your Project Turnaround team. Here is where you need to gather all the data, facts, and key documents. Bring together all your key decision-makers and technical experts. And provide them with the technical facilities (like communications, whiteboards and flip charts, and AV systems) that they will need, to do their jobs effectively.
Do a ground-up review of your project. Look at its charter, business case, plans, and status. You need to understand the history of what its sponsors intended, and how it came to its present state.
Analyze the root causes of the project’s problems. There are two questions to focus on:
As a result of your review, you need to be prepared to redefine any aspect of your project, its scope, and its business case. The endpoint of your review needs to be a clear re-affirmation of your goal.
Quick wins – the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’ – can be a diversion. But there is no doubt that they can re-energize your team and give your project turnaround some much-needed momentum. So, avoid an over-focus on small wins, but allow the team to pursue a small number of well-chosen initiatives of this type.
Especially valuable quick wins are those that create a positive reputational impact that you can use for PR purposes. Even better, are those that address the needs of highly critical and vocal stakeholders, whom you feel a need to win-over. this may be because their support is valuable or, simply, because their constant criticism is as distraction that drains your team’s energy.
It is not always going to be possible to secure additional resources for a failing project. You may need to earn the right to bid for them, with some solid progress. But, if it is necessary (and you consider a reasonable likelihood of success, start your bid for extra:
Start the process of systematic stakeholder engagement. Begin communicating clearly and frequently, and start with owning up to problems, resetting expectations, and answering questions. If you don’t, rumors and gossip will dominate the narrative. These soon lead to rants and recriminations that will distract you and your team from the real work of fixing problems and turning your project around.
We have a comprehensive article on Project Stakeholder Engagement, which links to all of our detailed resources: ‘Project Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area: A Guide to Stakeholder Engagement‘.
Move to the next stage with a re-launch team meeting. This is rather like a project kick-off, but needs to explicitly acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and the realities of your situation.
It’s worth noting that you want a less dramatic message to stakeholders. In their minds, re-launch proves that the project has failed. For them, the message is that you are aware of failings and setbacks, and that the team has taken concerted efforts to regain control.
Before you can start to properly turn your project around, you need to stabilize it, and prevent it from getting worse. So, this is the stage where you re-assert control.
Your project re-launch was a start to rebuilding your team’s morale and confidence. But it needs to remain a constant theme through this stage. Adopt an open, no-blame culture, and be supportive throughout.
You must not take a heavy-handed approach to bossing your team around, at this stage (or ever). It diminishes their self-confidence and leaves them not believing you trust them. And all this is less important than the fact you’ll stifle their inventiveness and enthusiasm.
But equally, your team’s trust in you is essential. They must feel that you are in charge, and in control of what’s going on. This means being aware of everybody’s work, willing to help when team members need it, and able to make quick and effective decisions, when called for.
For me, the perfect approach to leading your project is ‘Servant Leadership’. I’ve written about it in ‘How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team‘. If you are in a hurry and just want a quick explanation, we also have a video: ‘What is Servant Leadership? Project Leadership at its Best‘.
It’s not just team members for whom trust is essential. Continue keeping your stakeholders close, and sharing progress with them. Listen to their perspectives and, where possible, take account of their ideas, suggestions, and preferences.
I have already stated my view that, ideally, you will work with the same team through your project turnaround. You may need to bring in some additional help, and maybe release some team members. But each action introduces difficulties of its own:
This is a bit of an obvious point, I think, but it needs to be said. Start working on the technical problems that are causing your project failure, so you can bring them to a rapid stop.
To help you with problem-solving, we have an article: ‘Problem Solving: A Systematic Approach‘.
You are bound to have a huge amount on your plate, so it is essential that you prioritize what tasks you allocate to your team, and which ones you set aside.
The same goes for you. I strongly recommend that you prioritize full-time project management, rather than getting sucked into leading on any particular task. But, if this is not possible, always apply the materiality test:
How material is this task, to turning around my project?’
By the end of this stage, you need to have a new project plan. This needs to create a new baseline. So feel free to abandon any of the assumptions from the original project plan. Start afresh, from now.
Some people use few milestones in their project planning. You’ll need to create a sense of momentum and a series of successes for your project. So now’s the time to plan more, smaller milestones; yardstones, if you like: even inchstones!
Crashing timelines is a reference to a set of actions and initiatives that allow a Project Manager to rapidly accelerate project progress. This may be a necessary step in your project turnaround. So, it’s a topic we shall return to in a future article, you can be sure.
As you head towards stabilizing your project, you know you’ll need to keep it that way. So, now it’s time to do a thorough risk review. Use this to ensure you have:
This may feel like the last thing you want to do. On the other hand, it can have huge benefits to have an objective pair of independent eyes on your project. It also sends out a message of openness and confidence. So, do consider this as a real option.
During this stage of transforming your project into healthy, you need to work hard, work steadily, and focus on:
But don’t just blindly follow your plan. Keep speaking with your team members, so you and they are constantly alert for the need to further adjust your direction. Things have gone wrong before, so it’s safe to assume that only constant vigilance will prevent it from happening again.
Now is the time to develop a comprehensive stakeholder communication plan that will carry you through this stage and the next.
Team communications are equally important, and we also have a big article on that topic.
This stage is about creating a new normal for your project.
Research shows that the organizations which are least likely to suffer project failure are those with standardized project methodologies, with established project processes. And, those which do, are also the ones which are most successful in their project turnaround efforts. So start to systematize effective processes, to build a new operating model for your project.
Take a look at: ‘Project Lifecycle and the Project Process: 5 Tips | Video‘.
Of course, no process is effective, without the hard work of following the process rigorously and constantly reviewing its suitability.
I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but keep checking in with your team members; both individually, and as a whole team. This will keep you aware of what they are doing, and allow you to constantly monitor and supplement their motivation. Make a habit of catching people doing good work, and commenting on it. A little recognition and appreciation go a very long way.
Often projects go wrong when the Project Manager leaves Lessons Learned reviews to the end. Mistakes have been made, but they get repeated, because we aren’t learning the lessons as we go. D’oh!
Frequent lessons learned meetings provide an opportunity to:
Whether you use the model of the OODA Loop, the Plan-Do-Check-Act Deming Cycle, or the basic project management Monitor and Control model, constant attention and correction are vital to keeping your project on its new track.
Different projects will use different measures to gauge progress and variance. Consider using a combination of:
Your ultimate goal is to build a new self-confidence in your team. They need to feel they are in control of your project and can continue to steward it to a successful conclusion. If you can do that, and provide evidence that this confidence is well-placed, you have succeeded in your project turnaround.
So, what else is there?
Nothing builds confidence like celebrating successes. So once you are into your steady-state, create space in your project cycle for a team celebration. Keep them small, because the big celebration will come later…
When you successfully complete your project.
We’d love to hear your tips and advice for Project Turnaround. Have you had to rescue a failing project? What did you learn from your experience?
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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