Project Management Software
Specialists in Project Infrastructure
At some stage most Project Managers will be asked to step into a project that is in crisis. You will be asked to save a failing project or rescue a project that is in deep trouble. Your role may be to do a project health check or to lead the rescue attempt. This is the first of three parts. The first white paper discusses some of the things to consider before you start. The second will cover a health check and the third what to actually do when you undertake the recovery.
Before you start, you must find out what your mandate is. It can range from:
Many rescue efforts fail because there is no clear understanding of what is expected. Even worse, there are mixed expectations. To illustrate the point, consider something more visible. Disaster relief can be highly inefficient if different organisations are falling over one another trying to do the same thing, or not clear who has responsibility for what. A model for disaster relief is emerging in Europe that has a central authority comprising various aid agencies. Their role is to work out what needs to be done, and which agency is best equipped to do it.
If you are asked to step into a project, it should be made clear what you are expected to do. It should be documented and agreed by the Sponsor or person responsible. It should be made available to all so that everyone knows what you are there to do.
Scope of the Mandate
The mandate should cover the following:
A colleague who has been called in to do health checks on many occasions was telling me recently that what usually happened is that after pointing out the problem, he is asked to fix it. I have had the same experience in spite of being told at the start I was just to review. Be clear if you are interested in leading a rescue mission or not. Make it clear to the Sponsor at the very beginning if you are not interested. The worst that can happen is that they are so impressed with your report, they offer you an exorbitant amount of money to fix things!
Undertaking such a review can have a personal cost - both emotionally and career wise. A few years ago I was asked to work with a client I had worked with in the past to carry out a review of a project. The findings were highly critical of many aspects of the company including the Project Manager and the support he received from the Senior Executives. The results of the review were not challenged however they were painful to a number of people. They had hoped that it would all be swept under the carpet. Unfortunately I did not oblige. The result is that since then, I have had no more work from the company.
Do I regret telling it like it is? Not really. I went into the review knowing that is was probably not going to be a pleasant outcome and there was the risk of a dead messenger. At least I can point to the organisation and say it is a statement of my integrity. I don’t particularly want to write reports that shift the blame from a project participant’s inability to manage the project, to my inability to analyse the true situation. Cover ups have a tendency to come home to bite you in the long run.
Often the organisation is looking for a scapegoat. At least they are looking for someone to blame for the current problems, and often it is the puppet rather than the puppet master that gets the blame.
I mentioned emotional cost. If you have close friends associated with the project, what if they are guilty of some failure? Are you willing to risk your friendship to tell the truth? In an organisation I once worked in very early in my career, a review was carried out of the division’s performance. The report had one line buried in the dozens of pages that basically ended the career of the manager. The person undertaking the review had been a close colleague of the divisional manager for decades. He must have struggled for days before putting in that sentence. Basically it said something like
“There was a disconnect between the approved annual plan and the implementation of the plan due to a lack of management oversight of departmental activities.”
The Divisional Manager was moved sideways into a role with the same title but nowhere near the same responsibility. This was in the days where redundancy was a last resort rather than a normal part of the business cycle. In a corporate sense, it was probably the right thing to do but the two never spoke again.
Leading a project recovery exercise is not necessarily an exercise in conciliatory decision making. When the ship is sinking, nobody wants to form a committee to determine the lifeboat arrangements or how to plug the leak. The person who shouts “Follow me!” with the most authority is likely to be followed. Someone who can take command and lead from the front is an excellent person to have on board in most situations.
There are exceptions. If the problems relate to a breakdown in relationships and communication, an approach based on cooperative decision making can often be the most effective. You need to understand – at least at a high level – the reasons for the problem.
To undertake a project health check, requires skills above and beyond the skills required by a normal project manager. You need to ask yourself if you have the necessary skills to undertake the work. As someone once said to me:
“It is bad enough to stuff up a project but it is far worse to stuff up a review of a project. If they are lost, there is a chance they can find their own way home. If you point them in the wrong direction they are surely lost forever.”
Project Management Skills
It hardly needs saying but the person undertaking the review is likely to be a highly experienced project manager. They should have both a theoretical and a practical knowledge of what to look for in a project. They should have a clear understanding of Project Infrastructure. Project infrastructure is all the supporting tools, processes and templates that support an organisational project.
If something has gone wrong, it is likely someone will want to hide it. Even more likely is that there will be questions some people want to avoid hearing much less answering. The person undertaking a review needs to be skilled at extracting information and cross checking observations. Here are some questions you might want to add to your repertoire.
Many projects break down because of a misalignment between business and the project team. If it is an IT project, and the reviewer has a strongly IT perspective, the review will risk not getting business support. The person undertaking the review should be agnostic in terms of sitting in either camp. This is why the person doing the health check is often a consultant.
The ability to present written information in a clear and concise manner is critical. A report such as this is a prime candidate for creative interpretation and misrepresentation. The author must be able to state the facts in an unambiguous manner and leave no room for misinterpretation.
Looking at a project in crisis is not for the feint hearted. Ask yourself this question before you start.
“If I truly believe the project should be cancelled, would I have the courage to take that point of view to the Sponsor or whoever needs to take the decision?”
You will likely face all sorts of opposition from people with vested interests, or simply because so much of themselves is invested in the project. You may need to stand firm against significant forces. If you don’t believe you can do it, then best to back away from leading a recovery exercise or even doing a review.
It might seem overkill to focus so much on the preparation for undertaking a rescue mission but hopefully you will see it is not an undertaking entered into lightly. It requires a certain type of person with certain types of skills to look subjectively at a project and determine if it can be rescued. The next part of our white paper will focus on what actually needs to happen.