Every project manager takes on a new assignment expecting the best outcome. In a perfect world, careful planning would lead to high-quality projects that are submitted on time and on budget. However, that is not always the case.
While most projects might have a few issues during the execution process, some get derailed. Not only are PMs then left scrambling to allocate budgets and resources, they also have to cobble together the expected deliverables. The client is not happy, the stakeholders are not happy, and the PM has to get back on course — immediately.
No one likes to think about this situation, but everyone has to prepare for it. If you find yourself at the helm of a project that’s gone off course, follow these steps to recover:.
Define How Much Trouble the Project Is In
Catching problems early and taking steps to define issues before they escalate can prevent significant headaches and frustrations within your team. According to PM Solutions, about one in three projects in the average organization’s portfolio is at risk of failing.
The first step toward recovery is to evaluate the project’s current status and determine how far it has veered off track.
Review the Project As Soon as You Start Missing Milestones
Most project issues can be caught early if your team benchmarks against key deadlines and milestones. If your team is missing early milestones or struggling to gain ground, those are early warning signs of potential trouble.
“To turn things around, it may be as easy as explaining to the client that delays in the initial phase of the project will cause complications in the future as you will have to adjust other deadlines, including the final delivery date,” HubSpot content strategist Jami Oetting writes.
However, pulling one string can affect the rest of the tapestry. Oetting cautions that extending a timeline can also increase the project’s budget or required resources, exponentially growing the problems you’re currently experiencing.
Revisit the ‘A’s and ‘D’s
Walter Dickson at Unit4 encourages PMs to visit the project’s assumptions and dependencies to determine what went wrong and where the source of scope creep stems from. By reviewing the cause of the problem and what it means for the project, you can better plan for its recovery. For example:
- Identify which assumptions were incorrect, and recreate your plan based on new information.
- Determine which factors affect dependencies and try to control them, or at least work to make some items less dependent on others.
- Focus on the cause of the issues, not who is to blame for them. This will keep your process focused and objective.
If there is a single person or vendor to blame for project issues, that can be addressed after the project is delivered. Making projects personal or casting blame can create a toxic environment that slows a project down even more.
Check for Multiple Problems
Even if you think you have identified the main issue that is causing problems for your project, keep working through your checklist until you have reviewed the entire process. A mechanic might fix a car’s engine issues, but it still will not run correctly if he misses a flat tire as well.
The team at Ikigai Consulting, a project management consulting firm, highlighted a few internal reasons where a project might go off its rails:
- A lack of adherence to certain project guidelines and procedures
- Incorrect prioritization or too many dependencies
- Inadequate resources or conflicts over utilization
- Minimal communication and reinforcement of the plans
It is entirely possible that your team is not adhering to specific guidelines or correctly utilizing resources.
Talk About the Project’s Troubles With Your Team
Once a project manager understands what is at stake, he or she needs to address the issues with the team and come up with a plan of action. As a productivity and business professional, Fast Company writer Stephanie Vozza was able to provide tips for delivering bad news to your team and discussing the problems in a clear and productive manner:
- Practice empathy and fairness. Employees want to know the exact challenges they’re facing, not a glossed-over problem.
- Show compassion for team members who will be affected by the project changes, particularly those who will have to work harder because of them.
- Deliver the message succinctly, and then give employees time to ask questions and process the information before moving on.
By carefully preparing for your discussion about the project, you can better plan for emotional reactions and mitigate drops in morale. From there, you can take steps to find solutions for your project issues.
Discuss Project Boundaries and Limits
Every projects has its wiggle room, boundaries and obstacles. When you start brainstorming solutions and discussing problems, make sure you’re aware of where these issues lie. Dick Billows, PMP, GCA, encourages PMs to start with the key stakeholders or project charters to figure out what flexibility you have.
“The project charter should tell you why you do what you do and what your boundaries are as a project manager,” Billows writes. “You will have to maneuver your project around many obstacles and it is always good to know what the boundaries are.”
Some clients have hard deadlines, where expanding the timeline is not an option, but they have more funds to add resources to the project. Other clients will have flexible timelines and more wiggle room. Once you understand a project’s boundaries, you can discuss the situation with your team.
Brainstorm Solutions From Multiple Angles
Once your project starts experiencing problems, issues could potentially snowball and build on each other. Any additional mistakes could cut into your budget or timeline. By continuing to meet and collaborate with your team, you can open the floor for multiple solutions.
The team at Factor Funding Co., a business funding provider in Houston, offers three paths that PMs can consider when they’re looking to get a project back on track:
- Seek additional funding or resources: Look for ways to acquire time and money from the client or from other sources in the company.
- Reduce the project’s scope: If you cannot add, then remove. Try to cut back on project deliverables so you can meet your budgetary plan and timeline.
- Reduce costs: Try to find new ways to complete tasks that are more affordable or faster.
This is where it helps to have a diverse team involved in planning. When multiple brains are put together to solve a problem, it is possible to come up with various solutions.
Prepare for Client Conversations
Discussing the issues internally will also give your team time to come up with potential solutions to suggest to the client. You need to prove to your client that you know what you are doing. The best way to do this is to be transparent and follow the bad news with a plan.
Create a Recovery Plan
Even if you build extra space and time into this recovery plan, the stakes are now higher. Nadine Rochester, EMEA Marketing Director at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution, offers a thorough process for implementing a recovery plan. She leaves no stone unturned, and rightly so. If you are already missing deadlines or running out of resources, then you cannot afford additional problems.
“In many ways, assembling a team and getting the job done is a project in itself,” Rochester writes. “Recall the characteristics of a troubled project — confidence has been lost, people are out of patience. In such a situation, once the [PM] has re-baselined the project, the schedule cannot slip again.”
To ensure the new plan is airtight, PMs need to have a clear picture of the situation and adjust for every possible outcome.
Focus On What You Can Control
The more that you can control, the higher the chances that you will deliver your updated project on time. Earlier, this article discussed identifying assumptions and dependencies, and this section explores how to turn those into controlables. Identify what you have control over, and look for ways to make dependent factors less risky.
“Developing sound project control strategies begins with accurate and ‘controllable’ baselines,” Tom Flynn, PMP, co-founder at Advanced Management Services, Inc. in Vermont, writes at PM Times. “For any sizeable effort, the project manager will not be able to successfully perform both the management and control duties required by such a project.”
Once you figure out what is in your control, you can start to build cushions for outside factors.
Review the Workloads of Your Team Members
It is easy for project managers to think about team members as “resources” instead of human beings with thoughts and concerns. Successful project managers will look beyond the number of hours an employee is capable of offering and make sure they are able to handle the changes and what is expected of them.
“Too many project managers get bogged down focusing on the scope, quality, cost and timeline associated with their projects,” Irfan Kapasi, managing director of strategic solutions and services at IT staffing firm Computer Task Group, tells CIO. “Make sure everyone understands how and why their role is important to the success of the project, and schedule time for periodic check-ins.”
You might find that success in this project means moving responsibility away from one team member or adding support for another.
Pad Your Deadlines When Possible
Successful project managers will try to buy more time than they need to anticipate additional problems and issues. Even if you control twice as many variables this time around, there is still a lot that can go wrong.
“I assign my team members specific deadlines for their parts of the project — and the dates I give are always much earlier than I actually need [whatever],” Ashley Schwartau of The Security Awareness Company says. “That way if something needs to be [fixed], there is plenty of time for changes and another review.”
Remember, your window for error has significantly decreased during this project’s second review. If you can pad deadlines to account for late submissions or necessary changes, you increase your chances of succeeding this time around.
Execute the Recovery Plan and Measure the Results
Once key stakeholders, clients and employees all agree on a recovery plan, the final step is execution. This is traditionally the hardest part for PMs, who face significant pressure to repair past problems.
To help this, Dr. Harold Kerzner, senior executive director for project management at International Institute for Learning, Inc., has created a detailed guide for working through the recovery process. During this time, the project manager needs to be deeply involved in the work of others while protecting them from demotivating tactics. This means a few of the PM’s responsibilities include:
- Rigidly enforcing the scope change control process
- Performing periodic critical health checks
- Providing effective and essential communications
- Not allowing unwanted stakeholder intervention, which increases pressure
- Insulating the team from politics
As you can see, the PM needs to monitor and motivate internally, without letting external factors such as stakeholders or clients in to damage morale. Not only would that create “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but it could also confuse the priorities of project team members.
Motivate Employees Through Hard Times
If employees have to redo their work, pick up the work of others or return to projects they thought were complete, then it is easy for morale to drop. Team members can grow annoyed or reluctant to help others with problems. In this case, the role of the PM is motivator and cheerleader.
Economic Times reporter Rica Bhattacharyya has advice for managers who need to motivate employees. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing hard work and sharing success stories. “Recognition and appreciation for hard work one puts in can be the biggest motivator for employees, more so, in bad times,” she writes. “Even a simple note of appreciation over email can go a long way in motivating employees.”
Empathy can go a long way to motivate staff. If you understand their frustrations then you can support them to complete the required tasks.
Make Sure Projects Don’t Suffer From Chronic Issues
While the bulk of this article highlights project problems as if they are rare occurrences, it is possible to fall into bad habits that continuously cause problems for the company.
In an article for TechRepublic, Moira Alexander, author of “LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership” and founder and president of Lead-Her-Ship Group, explains when there are patterns to project problems (like chronic lateness or missed budgets), project managers and senior members of the company need to work together to identify why the same problems keep arising. Alexander highlights two common reasons:
- Internal policies prevent PMs from effectively doing their jobs.
- The PM lacks a key skill to accomplish the work.
The blame is not entirely on the PM. Management or the sales team might set unrealistic deadlines that the team cannot meet. But without reviewing the problems closely and looking for patterns, teams will keep having issues with performance.
Project recovery depends just as much on the project manager’s reaction as the work that needs to be done. With careful planning, a leader can navigate the careful tides of unhappy clients and frustrated employees.