Turning around failing projects

It is not uncommon for companies to struggle with implementing technology projects. Even with good vendors, sprawling and complicated technology projects are difficult to execute. Many go off-track at some point and of those, many are brought back to achieve some level of success in production.

If you have a project go off course, how should you handle it? How do you avoid it in the first place? From someone who has done this several times, here are a few tips that I've found work very well:

Turning it around

  1. Bring in an unbiased perspectiveSomeone who does not have a stake in the history of the project should assess the process of the project and the status of the project. Have them provide input on the three main areas: governance, management, and execution. If the issues seem to be more with the design or architecture issues, then assess those as well. Maybe this person can turn their findings over to the management team or maybe they need to stay involved longer-term to ensure their advice is executed, but either way it's critical to take blame out of the assessment itself.
  2. Re-set the goal-line: There are always timing and budget considerations, but when a project goes off the rails you need to make sure to take a balanced view of your priorities. If the timeline is the most important thing, then evaluate how to reduce scope or add resources. If a business result is most important, be flexible with your timeline and consider adding resources to key areas. If it's a tricky design issue, allocate additional budget to bring in a specialist. It all depends on the project and the business priorities now - not necessarily the expectations that were established at the beginning of the project.
  3. Move to an exception-based project management methodMeetings will not fix a floundering project. Keep the PMO lean and predictable. Have a well-established and well-communicated project plan that is updated on the same schedule every week. Keep an issues and risks log which your people update as needed and the PMO reviews every week. None of this is hard in and of itself, but being disciplined about it often is.
  4. Repair the relationships: If PMs are fighting or distrustful of one another, they need to get on the same page. They cannot fight for the rest of the project and expect to be successful. If they can't get on the same page, one or both of them need to be replaced. Not doing so will sow discord and mistrust among the project team, people will take sides, and their decision-making will lean more towards self-preservation than successful delivery.

Avoiding failure in the first place

  1. Establish a steering committee: This should be comprised of senior stakeholders and at least one outside expert. They monitor the project on a regular basis and have decision-making authority and budgetary control over the project. They are ultimately accountable for the results.
  2. Don't skimp on project management: A lot of projects try to save cost by running a lean PMO. Lean PMOs are, in general, a good thing but many project go too far. On difficult projects your lead project manager needs as much hands-on management time as possible. Add a PMO analyst to manage the project plan and put together status reports, add the part time resource to manage the issues database, delegate go-live planning to another experienced PM. Don't make the lead PM be engulfed in day-to-day administrative work - they need to turn the ship around first and foremost. And don't make them a "working" project manager - big projects needed a dedicated PM.
  3. Periodic project QA by an outside entity: Do at least a quarterly review with an outside, unbiased expert. They shouldn't get too close to the team, but it should be same person throughout the project. They should report to the project sponsor and their written assessments should be shared with the steering committee.
  4. Avoid the blame game: Most projects go off the rails because one or more issues get hidden for too long. They aren't raised high enough fast enough and ultimately become either the long pole in the tent or introduce a great deal of uncertainty to other workstreams. Creating a project environment where someone who raises an issue isn't worried about taking a hit, and where workers are comfortable disagreeing (constructively) in meetings is a critical and often overlooked aspect of creating a constructive project environment.

With a steady hand and a disciplined project manager, most struggling projects can be turned around. When in doubt, bring in help. The cost of getting things on track quickly will be dwarfed by either Day 0 turmoil or a disastrous delivery.

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