Recovering Troubled Projects

20 July, 2015

In our last article, we outlined the main causes for projects getting into trouble – poor requirements, lack of resources, poor scheduling, planning and risk management. However, while we now know how a project can get into a hole, most project management practitioners will be keen to learn how to get the project back out of the hole and on the right track again.

One vital aspect of project management is honest reporting. Unless the management team have a clear picture of what is going on, they will not know that a project is in danger of going off the rails. Project Managers, particularly those who have been promoted through the ranks, tend to be loyal to the team (most likely containing former team-mates) and might overlook some obvious warning signs. For instance, a particular task may be taking a lot longer than estimated. Having worked on similar projects before, the Project Manager may think that this is a one-off exception and “knows” that the team will be able to make up ground on subsequent tasks.

However, even if that is the case, the fact that one schedule activity has exceeded its estimate must be flagged. This could serve as a leading indicator that all the estimates are flawed – some engineers being wildly optimistic – or that risk identification has not been adequate. As the legendary British rally driver, Roger Clark, pointed out: he knew he was in trouble when he had to look out the back window to see where he was going. Similarly, Project Sponsors often are only aware of problems on a project when deliveries are missed.

As a Project Management Professional (PMP)®, you need to be prepared to break bad news. It is much better to come to your sponsor at the start of the project voicing your concerns about the estimates than to bury your head in the sand and have to confess months later that we are indeed looking out the back window to see where we are going.

Earned value analysis is a really good tool to indicate estimated versus actual progress. Once you start seeing variances, start your investigations straightaway. Schedule another estimation session with the team, or a risk identification/analysis exercise. It is better to over-react when there is time to do something than to wait until the train hits the buffers.

Recovering a troubled project is a problem-solving exercise and like all problem-solving exercises, the first step is to determine the root cause of the problem. PMPs® know that the problem will lie in one of the knowledge areas. The person charged with recovering the project will immediately review the project’s scope statement. If scope has not been clearly defined then that is an obvious problem which must be resolved immediately.

Check if a work breakdown structure has been prepared. The scope may be very well defined, but the work packages needed to realize the scope might not have been. As the work breakdown structure forms the basis for scheduling, this would be a serious omission. Another scope-related issue could be scope-creep, where ineffective (or non-existent) change control is in place.

If the scope is clearly defined, the problem could be with the estimates. Find out how the schedule was derived. What was the basis for the estimates? Very often you will find that schedules are finger in the wind exercises or the whole schedule is based on a prescribed end date.

Examine the team. Often schedules are prepared assuming that the team is proficient but the reality can be a team of raw recruits that need to be trained up before they can work at the pace the schedule requires. Another personnel-related issue can be found in the schedule: are there external dependencies, where the project depends on work done in other teams or by external contractors? Often Project Managers do not have the authority to put pressure on third-parties and may need to bring in support from the Sponsor.

Risk is another good area to explore. Ask to see the risk register. If the Project Manager responds with a blank stare, this is another possible cause of the problems. Do not be surprised if risk management is a new concept for the Sponsor as well. It is frightening the number of projects that are chartered in a burst of wildly optimistic enthusiasm.

Once you have identified the problem(s), have you the agreement of those on high to do something about them? As we have seen, problems with planning are the most likely reasons for projects getting into trouble. To get the project out of trouble, we will have to invest in a re-planning exercise. Is that feasible? If the project has a hard-deadline and is already late, we might have no choice but to terminate the project. However, if there is time, the re-planning exercise will give the project a new lease of life.

Finally, do not fire the original Project Manager. Often, Project Managers are thrown in at the deep end and many see their first projects get into trouble. This is a great opportunity for the recovering Project Manager to mentor the original Project Manager and introduce proper planning tools and techniques. Experiential learning is probably the most effective kind and a Project Manager who has seen a project go off the rails will certainly not want to repeat the experience. On the second attempt, this older and wiser Project Manager will make sure this project does not get into trouble.

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By Velopi Seamus Collins

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