It is never a good idea to take over a project someone else has started. There is too much risk that they will not have set it up to succeed. So what should you do if you have no choice? For whatever reason, you have to engage in a project takeover, and you want to make a success of it?
Many articles focus on the first few days, but the challenge of project takeover extends beyond this. So, here, we will look at all the aspects of what you need to do when you take over an existing project.
Although one of the commonest questions people ask me during seminars, workshops, and live training is:
‘How do I take over an existing project?’
…I also get asked:
‘Why is it an issue?’
So let’s start by understanding the problem.
Someone started a project in good faith. They worked hard, and did everything right. But then, for one reason or another, they had to step down. So someone needed to pick up the reins, and you were fingered for the project takeover. So, they started it, defined it, maybe planned it, and perhaps even begun delivering it. What if their assumptions and decisions are not those you would have made?
Someone starts the project knowing they will not need to finish it. Where are their incentives? Perhaps they come under pressure to trim the budget, shorten the timeline, or make unreasonable functionality commitments. They had nothing to lose, knowing someone like you would have to pick up the pieces during your project takeover.
What if they left things in a mess?
So, taking over an existing project is rarely easy, and potentially fraught with risk. But, you are where you are. So here is my project takeover formula, to establish where precisely that is, and to start to exert your own control over the project.
My ultimate Project takeover Formula has six ingredients:
We are going to review them one at a time, below. But, if you’re a watcher, rather than a reader, here is a video version that captures the main points:
Your first priority, following project takeover, is to remain calm and take time to review the situation. Everything will feel urgent, especially if the project you are taking over is in some kind of trouble. But if you respond without care you can easily make things worse and undermine your authority in one quick move.
Another mistake we often make, when we panic is to make promises we won’t be able to keep. Sometimes, this is simply because we don’t really know the significance of what we are promising. So here’s a simple rule:Make no #project promises that you cannot be certain you will be able to keep. Click To Tweet
So, having told you what to not do, here’s the first thing you must do when you take over an existing project. Make a list of questions you need to get answered, and keep track of whether different people give you the same or different answers to them. This will help you with the next thing.
If a project takeover is necessary, my first suspicion will be that there is a problem with governance. So get an early meeting with your project director, sponsor, client, or boss. Use it to start to build a rapport and to start to understand their perspective and priorities. What can they tell you about the situation, and what has gone before? Also, find out about the organizational context. What are the political pressures you need to be aware of?
Then, work with them to review the governance processes. How strong are they, and to what extent do you have the supporting processes that you’ll need, in place? If you don’t have what you need, make it a condition of taking on the project that you can strengthen the governance.
There may be an entirely benign reason driving the need for a project takeover. But, if there is a governance problem, now, at the start, is your best chance of addressing it. The longer you wait, the weaker your negotiating strength.
Next, turn your attention fully towards your team.
You will use all this to assess the strengths and weaknesses of team members individually, and the team as a whole. Once you have tackled the project plan (below), you will then go on to review role allocations on the basis of this assessment. Optimizing team deployments is a quick way to boost productivity and morale.
After your governance structures and your team, the next group of people to meet are your stakeholders. To a large extent, project takeover is about getting to know people, and starting to build relationships.
Meet and build relationships with:
With relationships in hand and an understanding of different people’s perspectives, it is now time to collate all of this. You need to assess what you have, in terms of project definition and project plans. Project takeover gives you a small window of opportunity to make big changes. So grasp it.
Review all of the available project documentation, paying particular attention to fundamentals like:
If the project definition is inadequate, schedule time to do this correctly, and create your own version that you can get signed off by your project director, sponsor, client, or boss.
Determine your level of confidence about the viability of any plans that are in place. What are the pressure points and key risks? If the project plan is inadequate, schedule time to rebuild it correctly. Work with your team to produce a new plan that everybody can believe in.
Review the stakeholder engagement plans that are in place. Understand the stakeholders and assess the strength of the stakeholder engagement plan. If the stakeholder engagement plan is inadequate, schedule time to re-work it, working with your team to produce a new plan that everybody can believe in.
Determine your level of confidence about the adequacy of the budget. What are the pressure points and key risks? If the budget is inadequate, schedule time to revise it, working with selected team members, and basing it on a sound plan. Secure review and sign-off by your project director, sponsor, client, or boss.
With a new set of plans and a budget you can be confident about, your project takeover is nearly complete. It is time to start moving forward.
Where you are not happy with role allocations, as I indicated above, you can review them and re-allocate your team members. You can also put in place actions to fill in any gaps left by missing or inadequate documentation, procedures, or records. This is unlikely to be an urgent priority, but it is important.
As you start things on their new course, set up an on-going performance monitoring and review process. This will allow you to keep on top of your project, and learn more about your team members. You will be able to use this to tighten up performance and further strengthen relationships with them.
Another priority I would set is to put your own style on project communications. Update the plan so that each element represents your idea of what will work best in the next stage (and, crucially, in communicating the takeover):
This is not about placing yourself at the center of project publicity. Rather, it is about taking responsibility for every message that goes out. This responsibility is what will mark out your successful project takeover in the eyes of your stakeholders.
Finally, once you have everything set up and ready to go the way you want it, consider a new kick-off meeting. Use it to mark the change and confirm the project’s new direction. Think carefully about the messages you want to convey, and how to get them across effectively.
Used well, a project kick-off can inject real energy into a tired project. If your project was previously flagging or suffering from a loss of confidence, this could be a valuable way to mark a new beginning.
This article is based on one of the checklists in our product Project Management Checklists, which contains over 50 helpful checklists that will help you to get your project right the first time.
Checklists prevent omissions, reduce mistakes, and speed your progress. Take a look at the Project Management Checklists now.
Have you ever had to take over an existing project? What would your advice be? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. I look forward to reading and responding to them.
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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