Project Management Institute

The cure for ailing projects




Like sick patients, projects can show troubling symptoms long before they're declared terminal. A thorough examination often reveals that many of the project issues are actually people issues:

  1. Poor attendance or last-minute cancellations at project meetings
  2. No-shows with no communication
  3. Providing inadequate or incomplete information
  4. Missed deadlines for providing information
  5. Unresponsiveness to e-mails

This returns us to the familiar adage that it's not process that fails—it's people, when they choose not to cooperate. This happens for a variety of reasons, including multiple priorities, personal issues, lack of knowledge or commitment, or sheer disinterest.

As project managers it's up to us to orchestrate attention, contribution, ownership and responsiveness. Typically I‘d do this through interaction. If this fails to have the desired results, however, further action will be required.

On one of my current projects, for example, I had to seek out the lead sponsor to discuss the lack of responsiveness among the stakeholders. The meeting was both necessary and uncomfortable.

Talking about lack of commitment is often a challenge, and seeking sponsor involvement is difficult for many project managers. Most of us would prefer not to have to deliver bad news. But when we do, we should try to be upbeat and constructive. Talk openly about the circumstances that have brought you to your conclusion, providing fact-based data and solutions.

Raising visibility

Gaining an understanding of how your sponsor (and extended stakeholder groups) prefer to receive information is vital when critical issues have to be faced. In my case, the sponsor was a highly visual learner. So I went in with an updated Gantt chart, a list of meetings, dates, participants and actions to illustrate progress made, and an audit trail of which individuals had responded well, and those who were tardy or absent.


Although the contents of my report were unpleasant (both to deliver and to receive), it was easier to make my case backed by documentation. Armed with that data, I could request that the sponsor prod the relevant people while ensuring that those who had responded wouldn't be inadvertently included. I also phoned the stakeholders who were participating to advise them that while the sponsor was issuing a “chaser” to the whole group, they had been highlighted as having already made constructive contributions.

That initial meeting wasn't easy, but it resulted in a number of calls and e-mails from the sponsor—and apologetic responses from the targeted individuals, who were ready to act now that visibility had been raised.

Normally I prefer to use a collaborative approach. But the mark of a strong project manager is having the flexibility to know when it's time to employ an autocratic, direct strategy to stimulate the project and participants. Flexibility, ownership and tenacity are key to resolving such scenarios—and putting your project on the road to recovery. PM


Sheilina Somani, FAPM, PMP, is the owner of U.K.-based Positively Project Management, which provides consulting, mentoring and development services.

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