They start with the best of intentions. The kick-off meeting was successful; engagement was high, as was excitement, but somewhere along the way, things started to fall apart. The shift may have been gradual and not really apparent at first. But before you knew it, engagement was at an all-time low, milestones were being missed, and things had gone horribly off track. What happened and how do you fix things? In this article, we will explore some of the causes of projects getting off track, and discuss how you can take corrective action with 7 project recovery techniques to get things moving forward in the right direction.
In a report titled Practical Strategies for Project Recovery, it was estimated that 37% of projects are at risk of failure each year. The firms taking part in the study on average managed $200 million in projects per year. What this translates to is $74 million of “at risk projects” every year. What causes projects to get so far off track?
In a recent article in “PM Network” Matt Alderton details five trouble spots in project management. In many cases adopting a more agile approach to project delivery can be a panacea.
First, many projects fail due to poor up-front planning. Either the goals and objectives are unclear or detailed project requirements are buried in lengthy and complex documents. Goals, objectives, high-level requirements, and major milestones should be clearly measurable and concisely described. Not only should all stakeholders agree on the requirements, but all team members should understand the required work without question. Is it possible that this project can be descoped and concepts like minimum viable product can be considered? (Check out the product owner video.)
Second, many projects run into difficulties due to a lack of communication. Note, though, that lack of communication can mean many things – not communicating by the stakeholders’ preferred method (phone vs. e-mail), not understanding the depth or breadth of required communications (stakeholder analysis), and not identifying the significance of communicating with individual stakeholders (stakeholder influence). Each of these pitfalls can lead to project misunderstandings. It is the role of the project manager to ensure that s/he delivers the right message at the right time to the right people. Modern lightweight tooling from companies like Atlassian really helps this process while breaking down silo’s as organisations adopt agile portfolio management processes.
Third, failing to document the hard project constraints can easily lead the project to doom. Normally, all projects should document boundaries for the effort’s scope, cost, schedule, and quality. Again, these constraints must include what the project addresses as well as what the project excludes. This is the full definition of the project baseline. Using tools from Atlassian such as Confluence greatly assists the process of agreeing and versioning requirements.
Fourth, inconsistent, infrequent, and verbose status reports may indicate the project is in trouble. Project status reports should consistently indicate work-in-progress vs. the baseline cost and schedule. Deviations in single metrics or a growing trend over time should lead the project manager to implement further risk analyses and mitigation efforts to bring the project back on track.
Finally, the fifth trigger for project management troubles is a disconnected team. Personality conflicts, trust issues, or out-and-out apathy can lead a project to disaster. It goes without saying that project management is at the heart of leadership.
7 Project Recovery Techniques
If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. There are several techniques that you can use to get things back on track.
- To Recover or Not to Recover: It could be worth exploring whether or not there is a need to recover in the first place. It could be that the need for the project has changed thus making the project unnecessary. In this case, the project manager should spend some time talking with the project sponsors to determine the viability of the project moving forward. Some key questions that should be addressed in this discussion are:
- Has the need for the project changed? If so, how? And does it warrant throwing out the old project and starting a new project?
- Has the priority for the project changed? If so, should the project be put on hold for some amount of time?
- Are there enough funds to continue with the project? If not, how can more funds be allocated, or should the project be halted altogether?
- Work Overtime: No one likes this approach, but if the schedule is that far off track, it may be needed in the interim to turn things around. Project Managers should be forewarned, that with this approach, motivation and morale is likely to drop very quickly if the overtime is extensive and there appears to be no end in sight. With that being said, it would be a good idea to set a time line for how long the overtime is to last. That way, team members can see that their efforts are leading towards a definite purpose and that things will not be hectic forever.
- Crash the Schedule: In this method, you would apply additional resources to tasks on the critical path in order to shorten the amount of time needed to complete those tasks. According to an article by Microsoft, some of the ways to shorten the critical path, are shortening the duration of a task on the critical path, or changing a task constraint to allow for more scheduling flexibility. It may also be worth considering changing the project management methodology, perhaps considering Critical Chain, or some variant of Agile Project Management.
- Fast Track Tasks: With this approach, you would look for tasks that are currently designated to be completed in sequence, and change them to be completed either totally or partially in parallel. The idea behind this approach is that you can complete more in less time. Another approach to fast tracking is known as partial overlapping. With this approach, you find that tasks that could be started right before its predecessor is complete.
- Say No to Scope Change: Scope creep is one of the most damaging things a project faces. With the scope of work constantly changing, it can be like trying to hit a moving target. By saying no to scope change, you give the project team a set goal upon which to concentrate. One of the easiest ways to manage scope creep is create a Scope statement for the project that is agreed upon and signed off on by each of the stakeholders. This scope statement then becomes the measuring stick for whether or not changes fall within the parameter of the original scope of the project.
- Scope Reduction: Perhaps the initial scope of the project was too large to begin with and can’t really be completed in the time allocated. If this is the case, it may be time to revise the scope and get things to a manageable level. The Project Manager should take the Scope statement back to the stakeholders and determine areas of the scope to either remove or perhaps put off to another phase of the project.
- Outsource: Replace the project manager and/or bring in outside help. Outside help can, in certain circumstances, act with independence and objectivity. This can help to “clear the air”, realign everyone’s expectations, and get the project back on track.
As a project management company, we have many years of experience in helping to recover projects that have misfired. An outside, independent voice can sometimes be very valuable. I spoke to some of our project managers and ask them for some nuggets of wisdom:
- The approach needs to be holistic and collaborative. We work with the project implementers, the stakeholders, and any related parties, to quickly determine the problems and come up with actionable ideas that can be used to bring the project back on track.
- As an outside consultant you need to understand that your value to the organization is in your ability to quickly and accurately diagnose the issues and present reasonable solutions. So work smart and work fast to assess the situation.
- As independents, we are unencumbered by the project history, culture, and politics. We arrive at conclusions with the team, we do not pass judgement. Take advantage of this independence to build bridges between the broken parts of the project.
- Use a series of multi-disciplinary and collaborative sessions that give everyone the opportunity to be heard. Get as many ideas from different viewpoints as possible. This creates a “can-do” atmosphere and a sense of urgency.
- Work with the existing project and management teams to re-plan the project to bring it back on track as quickly as possible but focus on delivering real business value. This may mean reassessing what features are important and what can be left out.
- Leave the project team with a series of recommendations and sufficient training and knowledge to implement these recommendations in future projects.
- Be assertive, stay objective, and remember that time, scope, and cost are still important, you just have to reset these parameters and then deliver.
If an IT project reaches the unfortunate stage in which all key decision makers recognize that failure is imminent, emotions always run strong. In fact, negative emotions, namely stress and low morale, are signs that a project is in the dreaded “death spiral.” Think about how much the announcement that the project is in danger can exacerbate this negativity.
When it comes time to apply project recovery techniques, the last approach we need to bring into this already toxic environment is the “command and control” style. It is marked by micromanagement, intimidation, deadlines imposed by dictate rather than by careful estimation, demoralization, and often outright yelling when tasks are not completed to satisfaction. For a strong illustration of this style, we can look at the notoriously blunt and brutal way Linus Torvalds addresses core Linux contributors.
Project recovery needs a cool but determined head.
Recognizing that project management is challenging and recognizing specific trouble signs are acquired skills. Yet even successful projects encounter difficulties. Identifying the above five trouble signs for your projects early on can help to address them proactively with any of the above techniques.
Let us know what you think? We’d love to hear about your project recovery success and horror stories.
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