Troubled Projects

The Doctor Is In

Sometimes it takes a project doctor to prevent - or accurately diagnose and cure - a troubled project.

Joan Lundholm, PMP, finds something empowering and thrilling about working with troubled projects. It's a good thing, too, since her job is all about coming to the rescue. In fact, Ms. Lundholm, vice president of Flower Mound, Texas, USA-based Foremost Consulting Services and president of the PMI Troubled Projects Specific Interest Group (SIG), prefers to think of herself not only as a project manager, but as a project doctor.

"I don't want to make it sound like what I do is life-saving, or anything like that," Ms. Lundholm says. "But I imagine that it's the same type of thrill that a surgeon gets from going in and finding … the root cause of a sick person's dilemma."

Both Ms. Lundholm and Charles McHenry, PMP, president of Foremost Consulting and vice president of membership for the PMI Troubled Project SIG, offer up four pieces of advice for project managers (or doctors) looking to fix troubled projects, or simply avoid them altogether:

  1. Appoint someone to promote your project to the organization. One of the key factors of a troubled project is the lack of a project champion - someone higher up on the chain of command who can advocate for a project's objectives moving forward, Ms. Lundholm says. "You require a project champion … to convince these folks why [a project is] in their best interest and the best interest of the company," she says.
  2. Watch out for projects that start out troubled. "I was asked one time to move a company from San Francisco [California, USA] to Dallas [Texas, USA]. The project was certainly challenged or troubled from the start, because they only gave me 30 days to get that done - starting the day I was hired," Mr. McHenry says. Projects like this can be challenging right out of the gate because of a failure to realize how the complexity of a project's scope works with its schedule and budget. In cases like this, project managers have to ask some fundamental questions, says Ms. Lundholm."What within this scope is nice to have, as opposed to must-have? What's our real timeframe? I know you said you wanted it by this date, but what's driving that date? Sometimes it's flexible. A lot of times, it's not," Ms. Lundholm says.
  3. Remember: The devil is in the details. It's cliché, but its true. Project managers must have a good handle on the dependencies and interdependencies of their projects, Mr. McHenry says. He suggests creating a work breakdown structure at the onset of your project with a top-down map of what will be required to complete or rescue a project. This could involve everything from making sure a door is wide enough to fit a new server you're bringing in, to mapping out where electrical outlets are for machines and computers.
  4. Use earned value calculations correctly to get a glimpse into a project's potentially troubled future. By going through the steps and then maintaining your calculations over time, project managers can see if there are trend lines (either up or down) in scope, cost or schedule, and react before something actually happens.

"Now in my opinion, if you react to a potential problem or issue and you resolve it before it actually happens, then you've averted a troubled project," Mr. McHenry says.

Everything According to Plan?

Rescuing (and preventing) troubled projects allows project managers to stretch their imagination. That's according to Joan Lundholm, PMP, vice president of Foremost Consulting Services and president of the PMI Troubled Projects Specific Interest Group (SIG). She says the ability to make reactionary plans for every conceivable type of risk is a trait of the great project "doctor."

"How far in your imagination do you go with what possible things might go wrong? I think a lot of that comes from just your own personal experience and the lessons learned from other project managers," Ms. Lundholm says.

And it's that kind of experience and lessons learned that Ms. Lundholm and the rest of the Troubled Project SIG are hoping to share with their members. The group is in the process of creating a database of what they like to call "war stories" from troubled projects around the world. The technical requirements of this project are well underway, and Ms. Lundholm says that members of the PMI Troubled Project SIG will be able to view and add their own war stories starting in February 2008. Visit the SIG website for more information.