Course correction

Sherry Higgins, Project Management Executive, Washington, D.C., USA

Sherry Higgins, Project Management Executive, Washington, D.C., USA

As competition heats up and sales staff feel pressured to increase revenue, today's projects often promise more than they deliver. Although changing projects midstream is nothing new, it's still a tricky affair. Political hurdles must be managed, and most companies do not want to throw good money at ineffectual projects. Executed effectively, altering a project's scope or direction or adding new features often results in a better outcome and leads to greater revenue.

by Gary M. Stern

photography by Charles Ledford


We needed to focus on what we could get done and not try to live up to what was promised.


executive summary

  • img   As global markets become more volatile, many leaders must change project directions mid-course, necessitating a nonlinear, adaptive management style for project execution.
  • img   Executives are finding that adaptive management can pay off in greater return on investment.
  • img   Instead of setting an overall fixed scope, project managers set smaller goals in stages and let the project's final outcome and deliverables evolve.
  • img   Because this approach develops as the project emerges, project managers must learn to keep in constant communication with all staff members, not just sponsors, to make it work effectively.

img Companies must employ an “adaptive project framework, which maximizes business value by adjusting scope at each stage,” says Robert K. Wysocki, author of Effective Project Management: Traditional, Adaptive, Extreme, Third Edition (Wiley Publishing 2003) and principal of Enterprise Information Insights, a consulting firm based in Worcester, Mass., USA. The traditional project management approach is linear: The client sets a budget, scope and time, and the project manager aims to accomplish the task. Due to a mercurial business environment, Mr. Wysocki proposes “planning and executing those parts of requirements that are clearly known and using those requirements as a stepping stone into the great unknown.” The client, therefore, must become more adaptive, more involved with the project manager, more resilient and better able to let the project's final outcome evolve as it takes shape.

In the adaptive project framework (APF) framework, the client “knows the goals, but you both don't know the solution,” Mr. Wysocki says. The budget and time are set, but then the client and project manager collaborate to develop a better business solution. “You're determining business value at every point. The project develops incrementally, and every increment is validated by the client,” he says.

Cost Concerns

img Because return on investment ultimately drives a project, “the cost of change better be offset by increased benefits,” says J. Davidson Frame, an Arlington, Va., USA-based professor and author of Managing Projects in Organizations (Jossey-Bass 2003). Changing directions has to be a “controlled process, using configuration management and a structured approach. It also has to involve people across functions including marketing, sales, finance, engineering, operations.”

To get the OK to alter a project, the team must build a strong business model, including how the new outcome will be marketed to appeal to customers. “If you're going to spend $250,000, make sure it will generate $500,000,” Mr. Frame says. Ensuring that a project change results in revenue generation involves meeting with market research and product development staff and reviewing three potential scenarios—best case, worst case and most typical case. Convincing stakeholders involves constant meeting, talking, “schmoozing” and making the case that the change is necessary. Effective management involves “capitalizing on change” and overcoming being risk adverse, he says.

Experience taught Gary Walker, manager of software development at MDS Sciex, based in Concord, Ontario, Canada, which develops mass spectrometers for the health and life sciences industry, that the fixed approach to projects had to change. “Several factors played a role in moving us toward a more agile project management style,” he says. “User requirements would change by the term a project completed. Our markets would change or customers themselves came to a realization that their needs had changed. We needed to become more agile.” To refine its approach, MDS Sciex worked with Cutter Consortium, Arlington, Mass., USA, which developed an agile project management practice.

img Rather than setting one definitive outcome for a two-year project, Mr. Walker established shorter cycles of three to four weeks. “At the end of each cycle, we elicited earlier feedback from our staff, including marketing and product development,” he says. Collaboration was key, and that also entailed some issues because many of the software developers were used to working on their own. “Collaboration enforces a level of rigor, full communication and better feedback to ensure that you end up with a project that meets the needs required by the marketplace,” he says. But Mr. Walker admits that collaboration is difficult and requires improved communication and feedback skills.





“Clients have to be open to embark on a journey and not know where the end will be,” says Robert K. Wysocki. Adaptive project framework (APF) consists of five key steps:

1Version Scope. With the client, commit to a project's goals. How you do so will emerge through reiterations of steps two through four. Form a team, set a budget, and outline a cycle plan schedule and work breakdown structure (WBS).

2Cycle Plan. Meet with the client every two to six weeks to revise coming cycle priorities. Draft just-in-time planning schedules and assign resources to sub-teams, which informally schedule their parts of this cycle's WBS.

3Cycle Build. Sub-teams execute their tasks without alterations or delays. Reassign unfinished tasks to future cycles. If the current cycle wastes time and money, abort it and go to the client checkpoint.

4Client Checkpoint. Discuss progress to date with the client and jointly assess your output's current quality. Revise coming cycle plans based on what you've learned so far. Repeat steps two through four.

5Post-Version Review. On completing the project, write and archive reports on lessons learned and best practices—including APF itself. List product improvements to consider.



One way to bring everyone on board a project that is changing midstream is to adopt a “positive” approach, focusing on getting people to accept change, not resist it, J. Davidson Frame says. For example, “in order to improve efficiency of operations and customer satisfaction, a company may decide to implement a customer relationship management (CRM) system. If employees can participate in a process to implement any changes, it is more likely that they will support it.”

Another way to control change from going awry is establishing a change control procedure. The more significant an alteration, the more important it be reviewed by a change control board (CCB), Mr. Frame says. Because CCBs are cross-functional, change requests can be viewed from a broad perspective, incorporating sales, technological, financial and operational viewpoints.

MDS Sciex has seen a better return on investment of its products. “Early indications are that [both] our quality indices … and our level of confidence in delivering a quality product are improving,” he says.

A New World

However, sometimes changing a project midstream involves confronting a culture that isn't always open to change. After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, the goals set for modernization of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) technology infrastructure were too massive, says Sherry Higgins, a former FBI project management executive in Washington, D.C., USA. Using a flexible planning style, she helped to reset target dates and focused on fast-track goals. Brought into the project in March 2002, about six months after it launched, she was able within two years to get personal computers on people's desks and provide a new, secure network that allowed people to exchange files and pictures. Because this project involved convincing congressional leaders, retooling expectations and overcoming a staid bureaucracy, it was a remarkable accomplishment in a short time.

Trying to accomplish something too massive would be culture shock to a resistant bureaucracy, but accomplishing tasks in smaller parcels leads to a quality product. “We needed to focus on what we could get done and not try to live up to what was promised,” Ms. Higgins says.

img Ms. Higgins communicated with stakeholders, updating FBI personnel, elected officials and other law enforcement personnel who would be affected by the FBI's modernization. “Interpersonal skills were critical. The project manager had to build credibility and make a concerted effort to understand the culture before proceeding,” she says. Setting priorities was critical, and to make a project happen that was adjusting course, “you had to become a bit of a marketer to sell the right answer,” Ms. Higgins says. That helped people accept the bad news of changing midstream.


Almost any business upheaval can change a project's course, including a merger.

Olav Behrens, Project Manager, PAVONE AG, Paderborn, Germany

Change vs. Keep

Making the right adjustments involves talking directly to staff. Ron Cook, an instructor for Boston University who runs R. Cook Consulting, North Attleboro, Mass., USA, was brought in midstream to recover a project for GTE, a now-defunct telecommunications company that was developing interactive videodisc training. Though the project had nearly used its entire budget, the company wanted to make adjustments on its original design.

“The only way to fix it was to talk, face-to-face, with the 40 individuals involved in the project,” Mr. Cook says. “E-mails have their limitations.” He learned that the key problem was a misunderstanding of expectations that revolved around the scope of the work because it was cutting-edge, he says. The only way to change directions on that project was to get everyone on the same page, an effort which demanded trust and could be earned only face-to-face, not through impersonal e-mail messages, he says.

Almost any business upheaval can change a project's course, including a merger, says Olav Behrens, a project manager with PAVONE AG, a consulting firm based in Paderborn, Germany. Changing project directions midstream involves “learning to resell the project to the potential partner in the other company during the merger process.”

How do you know what to focus on when a project changes directions due to a merger or business upheaval? Dr. Behrens says, “Each company has its own benchmarks and even its own vocabulary for different projects.” He suggests creating an independent team to assess all current projects, prioritizing them and devising common benchmarks. PM

Gary M. Stern, a New York, N.Y., USA-based freelance writer, has contributed to Investor's Business Daily, Reuters, ECFO, Consumer Reports Travel Letter and USA Weekend.

To participate in an online discussion on adaptive management with your colleagues, visit and go to the PMI Member Community.




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