The mindset for rescuing a project
But what if you join a project mid-schedule that is in trouble? Not only do you face the typical ramp up, you face a mountain of problems that seem to stand in the way of progressing to successful closure. It is common to find schedule problems, quality problems, costs overruns, staffing shortages, skill-mix problems, morale problems, breakdowns in people working well together, blame games, confusion over the current version of what is committed, deliverables that don’t match the expectations, and on and on. For some projects, you must also contend with a frustrated or angry paying customer or underperforming vendors.
And finally, there you are, the new project manager. What kind of baggage are you bringing to the equation? You come with knowledge and experience. You come with your self-image, or at least the self-image you hope to project. You will find that some on the team are suspects that got the project in to a big mess. When joining a project with problems, some of us will follow the urge to point out what others should have done.
The first pitfall: People tend to jump onto the problems that look familiar or at least manageable.Wouldn’t it be nice to have some early successes you can point to? But is this really serving the stakeholders well? It serves you as one of the stakeholders. What about the others? The answer is not a categorical yes or no because it depends on the situation. And that’s the point. Never allow yourself to drift into a prioritization based on your comfort zone.Prioritize deliberately based on the most urgent needs of the business.
The second pitfall: Work on a comprehensive plan to address all the problems. There is value in getting a comprehensive inventory of the problems. I have found no value in developing a plan that includes them all. Your plan to rescue a project is a perfect application for progressive elaboration–meaning learning more about a project as you go along. Why? Because at this point, you can’t afford this much planning. One lone wolf can’t outflank a large herd without the help of a pack. The PM needs to prioritize the problems and work on the most important first, the second-most after that, and so on. You can’t solve world hunger, but you can select the worst humanitarian disasters and send food there. So you prioritize and work your way down the list.
This series of articles will walk through my top 5 areas of prioritization when coming into a project rescue. I now use this as a template for troubleshooting and planning even if I’m rescuing my own mess. We will go through them in descending priority urgency.
I’ve encountered objections to my approach from various people. Some feel another ranking is better. Frankly, those conversations are interesting and educational. I welcome them. But for most of those objecting, they have confused relative importance with relative urgency.
I want to emphasize that my approach does not conflict with the PMI way. Some might think I’m imposing something on the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) because I’m asserting a priority among the various aspects of project management. Let’s be clear. I’m not saying that one aspect is more important than another. What I’m saying is that, when you are rescuing a project, some aspects are intrinsically more urgent than others.