Improving project success

managing projects in complex environments and project recovery



Every project has its unique challenges. These become amplified in the context of complex environments or when projects deteriorate to the point they should be killed or need recovery. This paper focuses on the unique challenges for project managers in these situations.

We identify the environmental awareness required by a project manager in complex situations. Considering external drivers for business outcomes and affecting the internal culture that determines how a firm responds to change and project engagement.

The issues for projects requiring recovery may be different. They may have commenced with a solid business case and at some stage deteriorated to the point where the original objective seems unachievable. Alternatively they may have been doomed from the start. We examine some key aspects of a troubled project. This leads to an understanding that both complex environments and troubled projects need a similar approach to improve prospects for project success.

An examination of key Knowledge Areas in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) will bring structure to the situation. As we are dealing with business projects, experience from business management and helping people to deal with change will provide the wary project manager with options to help ensure personal success.


Why is it that some projects are more difficult to deliver than others? Is the desired outcome beyond reach, are people unwilling, is it the type of organization or is it simply lack of available skills? Or a combination of factors that are too difficult to comprehend?

In many ways it is beyond the project manager to guarantee success. Some areas that are beyond a project manager's control are: lack of executive commitment, competing stakeholder interests, and the true nature of a project's business benefit. So, if a successful outcome cannot be guaranteed, how do we influence the outcome to maximize the chance of success?

To a large extent, it is about what happens outside of the project: the business environment in which a project exists, and the project's prospect for success before it begins and throughout its life. It's about how the project manager exerts influence through knowledge, experience, and a determined effort to help the client and the project succeed.

We're not talking about complex projects. Complex projects in simple, stable, or supportive environments are not the focus of this discussion. Large projects with clear benefits and visible executive support, which everyone wants to be involved in, are easy projects to manage.

Troubled projects (also known as red or recovery projects) display similarities to complex environments. Once off track they are difficult to get back on track, even if there is a business desire to do so.

To finish, we will examine approaches to help project managers operate in these conditions. This partly focuses attention on the key Knowledge Areas of the PMBOK Guide®—Fourth Edition (PMI, 2008) and aspects of dealing with people and change. No matter what the project is, whether it's business transformation or an infrastructure upgrade, project outcomes affect people. The challenge of getting people to change what they do should not be underestimated.

Understand the Environment

Specifically, we are looking at the environment in the context of business of business projects (government and for-profit firms). There are similarities to the not-for-profit or social applications, and many of the principles discussed here can be translated into these fields.

Business projects can be characterized in terms of the people, process, and technology. These aspects of a project are interrelated and the challenges are amplified in complex environments.

The nature of s profit-based business activity requires optimization of resource use. In non-projectized firms, the use of operational (or business as usual) staff creates conflicting priorities for project members. Projectized firms can suffer in a similar way. Although the project manager has a greater deal of authority and access to resources as discussed in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2008, pp. 28-30), this conflict can result from the volume of projects in which the firm is engaged. Scarce resources can lead to conflict and lack of focus on critical project activities.

The organization's structure is almost irrelevant. Start-up firms and sandstone stock can vary in structure from deeply layered to flat, de-layered structures. Understanding the client's structure is important but not symptomatic of a complex project environment.

However, engagement with people within the firm is a more defining factor. Projects in large firms, enterprises, multinationals and government organizations result in multiple points of contact. As more people are involved, the number of communication channels grows exponentially. The total number of channels can be measured as n (n-1)/2, where n = the number of people involved (PMBOK® Guide; PMI, 2008, p. 253). These contacts vary in their knowledge and interpretation of project-related activity. The forms and speed of communication can be critical to improving project success.

Specialist skills required at certain stages of a project may also be absent. Consider whether the skills are required and set expectations with key stakeholders. Lack of commitment for specific required skills, in whatever way they are secured can be disastrous for a project's prospect for success.

Lack of process and documentation are another indicator of a complex project environment. Large firms will typically have process. One of the most enduring pieces of advice I was given in a complex client engagement was to “know the process.” Quoting a client's process back to the client is a very effective way of achieving outcomes. They already have it, so it must have had a purpose at some stage and because they developed it, they are more inclined to use it, where it still makes sense. Adapt, adopt, and apply existing processes and information for effective project outcomes.

In the absence of process—define it. This does not mean spending six months of consulting work to help a client to be ITIL-compliant. Processes or procedures are important. Here, I'm referring to “how things get done.” Project team members need to know how things will get done. Define it, communicate it, and document it only to the level required and no more. Your teams will appreciate knowing what they are expected to do and in a broader context, why they are doing it and what role they play in the outcome. Like Stephen Covey's stonecutters (Covey, 1989), increased awareness of what the teams are doing, its value to improve morale, and your ability to lead the project to success.

The type of technology and technology maturity can have significant effects. Latest technology is not referred to as bleeding edge for no reason. Implementing new technology can challenge small firms. A small IT team may lack required skills, leaving them reliant on external contract or consulting staff for guidance. These small teams need to maintain the technology for years to come, requiring upgraded skills while growing staff numbers is restricted and other technologies change (e.g., Intel to Apple platforms or vice versa), which can kill teams.

Gauging Internal and External Environments

An early view is important. It is best to know what you are getting yourself into.

If you are already inside the firm, all the better. You have a head start. You should already know most of the key factors that will help you determine the prospect of success. If you've been buried in your current assignment and do not know about the broader organization, now is a good time to learn.

If you are new to the firm, do your research. You are accountable as the project manager. I like the window and mirror analogy in leadership theory. When things go well, a good leader looks out the window and says “those people are responsible for the success.” When things go wrong, a good leader will look in the mirror and say “you are responsible for the failure.” Clients and engaging parties think this way about project managers. So, if you're accountable for the failures, you should know what the environment looks like (as best you can) before you commit.

Environmental Scan

A tool I inherently rely on has been around a while, but its application remains contemporary. Michael E. Porter proposed the Five Forces model (Porter, 1985, pp. 4-11) as a way to determine the competitive forces that define industry profitability. Porter used the interacting relationships of suppliers, competitors, new entrants, substitutes, and buyers to help firms think about their strategic position within an industry. This covers many of the primary influences on a firm's potential success. A challenged firm or firm in a challenged industry is more likely to distract executive attention and resources from projects that do not deliver short term benefits.

Other important external factors are the regulatory and political environments. Particularly for government agencies and companies impacted by public governance or legislative change outside of the pure forces of competitive industries. Ministerial changes bring new views and new priorities for government portfolios, as does a change of government.

The view inside the firm is equally important. Those elements of people, process, and technology and their interaction have a role in your likely prospects for success. Understanding these will enable you to have a better opportunity to access and use resources that are supportive and prepare for situations that will affect the project, your team, or the desired outcome.


A SWOT analysis is another useful approach that can be applied to personal, project, and business activities. As a preferred business strategy tool, it is a quick and practical approach you can use to evaluate the project environment.

In a project context, the strengths and weaknesses are: an internal view; the project team skill, availability, experience, the existing process, and ability to plan and manage risk. The opportunities and threats refer to external project factors. Opportunities for the project to enable the firm to achieve strategic goals, enhance reputations, or differentiate a firm from its competitors. Threats may come in the form of competition for scarce resources from other projects, routine operational activity, or available finances. Other potential project threats are changes to portfolios, business strategy, or changed business tactics that may diminish benefits.

The Business Benefit

The project's business case is a valuable determinant for the likely success of a project. Does the project deliver business benefits? How are these benefits defined and how will they be recognized? What type of analysis has been done to determine which benefits will occur and is there a plan to review them?

If there is no business benefit, why is the project is being done? In these cases it is more likely the project is someone's hobby and you should consider whether it's worthwhile being involved. Although it may be interesting, however, it lacks business buy-in and should normally be avoided.

In many cases it may be up to you as the project manager to help uncover and develop the business case itself. Consider the alignment of project outcomes with the firm's strategy. As the project manager, you should question why scarce resources are being applied to a project that is not aligned to strategy, either directly or through portfolio planning as discussed in The Standard for Portfolio Management—Second Edition (PMI, 2008, p. 21–22). Cascaded planning from strategy, portfolio, and operational planning helps to ensure the firm's success and improve the project's prospect for success.

Content and Context

Another popular model is drawn from eXtreme project management. Adapted from a work by Rob Thomsett, two views of a project are used to look at what's going on inside the project (the content) and examine these separately to what is going on outside of the project (the context). Thomsett (2002, pp. 25–27) uses these views to describe the difference between the technical management of data, design, specifications, test plans, and documentation as the content focus. The external context focus is on stakeholders, related projects, risks, and benefits, among others.

Away from eXtreme project management these views translate very well into a focus on the process aspects of getting an idea from concept to creation. The project's stages of planning, scheduling, requirements, design, development, testing, training, transition, documentation, task management, and team meetings are used to move the project to its completion. This inward focus is important and necessary to achieve the desired outcome. This is about the content of the project.

Context is about the external environment—the circumstances in which the project exists. These change with the seasons, with the people in power and of influence. The circumstances can change within a firm and are certainly different from one firm to another.

The external view is necessary and more important. Ultimately, people do business with people; and project managers manage projects on behalf of people. These people—sponsors, suppliers, financial controllers, staff, management, executive, boards, shareholders, and other stakeholders—have the power to influence the success of a project.

Ultimately this is about risk management. You must apply a risk management view of the firm, its key stakeholders, internal culture, and project maturity if you are going to positively influence the outcome of a project in a complex environment.

Troubled Projects – What Went Wrong and Is It Too Late?

Troubled projects share commonalities with projects in complex environments. There are also important differences.

Identifying a Troubled Project

A troubled project can best be described as a project that does not meet the desired outcome or exceeds acceptable tolerances. Projects will reach delivery with minor outstanding issues that require resolution but are not material to the overall benefit achieved from the project. In most cases, these minor variations are acceptable. There may also be tolerance for financial overruns, that do not exceed contingency reserves or for deliverables that may be days or even weeks later than expected. These minor acceptable variations are part of the practical world of project management.

Troubled projects have major variations. They may be considered as unable to be completed at all. Troubled projects have critical tasks that are not on track or, when delivered, have flow on impact to later tasks that significantly impact the delivery time frame. High burn rates in expenditure beyond budget or cash flow issues are another indicator. Poor quality development, severe test failures, and increasing defect failure rates are other indicators. Low team morale and high staff turnover (including project managers) are other indicators.

To put it another way, the context of the project will indicate that there is trouble and the content of the project will demonstrate how much trouble it is in. Senior stakeholders, sponsors, and senior executives are normally the first to call for help. They have the highest risk of failure because project failure means loss of business benefit.

Kill or Recover

Following a review of the internal and external environment, the next key question is: should the project be killed? A project that has low prospects of achieving business outcomes can drain executive focus and distract resources away from other potential business-benefiting projects.

How do you know if it's worth saving or becoming one of the 44% of IT projects surveyed by the Standish Group in 2008 that were “late, over budget, or with less features and functions” and 24% of projects that were “cancelled before completion or were completed and never used” (Jovanovic, 2009). There are two key factors to consider: the internal project health and the business benefits that can be achieved. At this stage, environmental awareness is critical.

Typically, the project's health can be determined by what you cannot find. Some examples include: no evidence of key project planning activities, project charter, project management plan, and risk and issue assessments; as well as poor evidence of team meetings that should lead to a shared understanding of the project and its status, poor status reporting, and no sponsor engagement.

And within business constraints, what business benefits can be achieved with whatever it is that can be delivered? These may vary from the original intention or scope. However alignment of deliverable components that have real business value provide the firm an opportunity to recognize value from the investment already made and to adjust itself to alternative outcomes that are still desirable. This decision making helps a project move from the failure category (bottom 24% as measured by the Standish Group) into the challenged group (44% of projects surveyed).

Success Criteria

The success of the project will be determined by the business stakeholders. Your role is to help the business determine what can be delivered with good guidance, skill, and knowledge; and how the project can be retrieved to deliver the original or adjusted business benefits.

Your success will be determined by your ability to gauge the situation, plan for success, and lead the team to achieve it. In this case, culture plays an important part. When projects go wrong—people just leave. In business, no one wants to be associated with failure and that's where a troubled project is heading. Your ability to pull the team together will be a defining factor in your success. If you do not have the skills to do this, get them, or find another project.

Commonality of Recovery Work and Complex Environments

There are differences between troubled projects and complex environments, but there are sufficient similarities so that both can be dealt with in a similar way. The Project Management Institutes' PMBOK® Guide—Fourth Edition PMI, 2008) provides a source of knowledge that can be interpreted and applied in a variety of situations. Regardless of the client's process or project methodology, your application of knowledge and experience can be used to help successfully guide a troubled project or deal with complex environments.

Knowledge Areas that make a difference

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder communication is essential. Establish confidence with the sponsor, senior business representatives, and key stakeholders. Provide and demonstrate the ability to manage the situation and navigate the issues that will be faced during the project's life. These people probability know what those issues will be but they need to know that you are capable of identifying them and dealing with them. Establish the role of a Steering Committee. Change the participants if necessary. Define their contribution and set expectations of their support.

Stakeholders include the project team. Project work has an impact on their work, life, career prospects, and professional reputation. As a temporary leader, you need to demonstrate you are capable of leading the project to a successful conclusion. People like to know what is happening; they want to know what their role is and how they can help to achieve a task, deliverable, milestone, or project. Engage them and keep them engaged. Regular team meeting, minutes, documented plans, and a schedule help to communicate the plan, activities, status, and progress.

Set Boundaries

Establish the scope and manage it tightly. Gain agreement and document it. Use or create a scope change process. Communicate it and use it as often as required. Anything that is not in scope must have critical reviews and sponsor/steering committee support in order to be adopted. Anything that affects the scope will most likely affect the delivery timeframe and probably the budget.

The schedule itself can change and many projects do not religiously follow the schedule. Have a schedule and baseline it. Know where you are at a given point in time. Manage the tasks, risks, and issues and constantly adjust priorities. By doing this—you are managing. Changing priorities results in things being done in a different order and at different times; and constantly requires realignment. A schedule is a communication tool. However, if a change affects the overall project timeframe,—that's different. If something is introduced into a project that affects the timeframe—make sure that decision is approved by an informed sponsor or the steering committee.

Be Risk Aware

Plan, identify, assess, and manage risk. Take a risk aware approach to every activity the project undertakes. The situation already entails higher levels of risk when compared to small, stable, and healthy projects. These risks are real and can be managed. Involve stakeholders in risk assessment activities and continue to monitor, manage, and report on the project's risk profile. Be frank and honest. Too often, everyone knows a project is in trouble but the status is still reported green. If this is done, no one will take your reports or you seriously. If a project is red, report it as red. The project will get attention and probably get the help you need.

Four Principles for Personal Success

Demonstrate Confidence

Create certainty with key stakeholders and the team. Get to know them, their issues, and how you can help them contribute to the project success. Use small wins to set an expectation that outcomes can be achieved. Set expectations and deliver on them. Small wins add up and can build support.

Demonstrate leadership. Everyone has a role—help them be successful in it. Take responsibility for the project and the inevitable difficulties that will come. Show that you are willing to look out the window and into the mirror. People will be more inclined to get engaged. Set boundaries in areas like acceptable behavior, teamwork, delivery of work, quality of work, and how things should be handled when they go wrong.

Inspire Others

Share the vision of the project, its outcomes, the business benefits and its relationship to their work. Ignite passion in the team and enthusiasm for the work.

At times it may be necessary to create a sense of urgency. Firms can do extraordinary things when customers complain or when legal or commercial action may be taken. When a company panics, the increased cost (financial or human) may help recover but the damage is already done. Use risk awareness to identify issues early and ignite the team into action.

Be Flexible

As the project manager, you must adapt to change—partly because that is what you are doing to everyone else by introducing change; also, because your circumstances will change from project to project. Adapt your approach, expectations, and personal interactions to suit the team and the client.

Embrace diversity in your team members, their skills, background, and experience. Be inclusive. A diverse mix of technical, business and cultural contributions are more likely to make the project a success, depending upon the recipients and the environment the project exists in. Create a positive team culture that recognizes contribution and rewards outstanding behavior.

Anticipate challenges and find ways to overcome them. Do this for yourself and your team, and they will deliver better project outcomes.

Influence Outcomes

Actively manage stakeholder engagement. Key decisions are best made by informed stakeholders. This does not just happen in a meeting room. Provide one-on-one briefs, identify obstacles, and address them. Use your influence to gain beneficial outcomes for team members and the project. Engage with stakeholder early and often.

Build strong personal relationships that will allow you to secure resources at critical times. People do business with people and establishing good working relationships is essential in modern business. Be honest. If you have bad news—deliver it personally. Provide the background, options, and a recommendation. You will find this builds trust and gains you freedom to get things done quickly.

Finally, use your influence to protect the team. Project delivery is mainly done by other people, not the project manager. Protect them from adverse outcomes—these are expected. Enable them to focus and work effectively.

Accelerate Change by Overcoming Filters

Finding it difficult to influence people to your views or needs? We all have a different frame of reference and we filter everything based on this. The key is to understand this and apply techniques to overcome these filters. The VAK-BASIC model (Bray, 2006, pp 115–118), considers that people process their world through three primary sources: Visually, sound (Auditory), and their feelings (Kinaesthics). People provide verbal and nonverbal indicators of their dominant processing function. Tailor your communications to tap into these.

BASIC refers to people's preferences in how they deal with new information or situations (i.e., change). Each element is a continuum and they can be applied to all people you deal with in your project work.

Big picture people like the high-level view, so things can be put into context. Alternatively some people prefer the detailed view. Big picture people get bored quickly when the discussion turns to detail.

People's tolerance for change will result in them moving Away from change (e.g., if they are uncomfortable or fear it) or adapt quickly (e.g., moving towards it).

Not everything changes as a result of a project. Communicate what is the Same for those who are only partially affected by the change, in order to reduce concern.

Some will be more concerned with what changes Internally, while others will be more interested in the external impacts. Consider how these are best dealt with.

And finally, some people may need to be Convinced. Show them that it has worked elsewhere or demonstrate confidence with small wins.

Closing Remarks

Test everything.

Experience counts….go out and get it.

Seek advice widely….use what makes sense for you.

Lead…and others will follow.


Bray, T. (2006). The training design manual, London, UK: Kogan Page.

Covey, S. R. (1989). Seven habits of highly successful people, New York, NY: The Free Press

Jovanovic, S. (2009). Rescue plan PM Network, 23(11), pp.18–19.

PMI (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

PMI (2008). The standard for portfolio management—Second Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Porter, M. E. (1985). Competitive advantage: Creating and sustaining superior performance, New York, NY: The Free Press.

Thomsett, R. (2002). Radical project management, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

© 2010, David Stead
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Melbourne, Australia



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