Midstream Maneuver

Careful Research Can Smooth the Transition When Inheriting a Project




Changing horses midstream is rarely a good idea, conventional wisdom would have it. But in the business world, change is nearly impossible to avoid. Projects often stretch for months—sometimes years—and it's not always possible for the same project manager to helm the project from kickoff through completion.

The tighter the talent market, the more likely that a career move will disrupt continuity. And with today's labor outlook, managers have reason to be biting their nails: Globally, 27 percent of workers are actively seeking new jobs, according to a 2019 Gartner survey.

When one project manager departs, another is tasked with taking the reins. But it's not always that simple, says Fred Wenger, PMP, associate vice president, Louis Berger, Washington, D.C., USA. “In a sense, you approach it as if you were starting a new project,” even if the team has a long list of tasks under its belt.


—Fred Wenger, PMP, Louis Berger, Washington, D.C., USA

A bit of sleuthing can help sniff out potential pitfalls so you can proactively address them, Mr. Wenger says. He recommends soaking up intel from the team, project sponsor and any other internal and external stakeholders. Next, comb through the project charter and documentation to get a firm grasp on where things stand and how to proceed. Speed is key, but skipping the research phase can prove disastrous, Mr. Wenger says.

While the first steps apply in almost every project takeover, some potentially problematic transitions require a tailored approach.



Project Disarray

Budget overruns. Brittle team cohesion. An absentee sponsor. Projects can go south in any number of ways. And when that happens, new project managers aren't just stepping in mid-stride. They're also trying to course-correct.


Shift the Momentum

Before assessing the mess, start by studying the project's origins, Mr. Wenger says. What issue or opportunity is the project aimed at? What does the project charter address? Then meet with the project sponsors and team members for a brief overview of the project's timeline and a reminder of the original goal.

“The project, the end product, the mission, that's what is most important,” he says.

One helpful question to pose during those conversations: If you could change one thing about how the project has been managed to date, what would that be? “That leaves room to identify mistakes without assigning blame,” he says.

Shifting the momentum and morale on a chaotic project takes finesse. Sonia Montalvo-Johnson, PMP, project manager, General Dynamics, Canberra, Australia, starts by setting a few easily attainable goals for the team to accomplish in order to build confidence. Meanwhile, Mr. Wenger makes it a point to acknowledge the work the team has done to date before laying out a new plan.




Missing Documentation

Documentation is essential for resource planning, setting objectives, tracking status, facilitating communication and maintaining focus. It's so essential, in fact, that project managers who inherit a project sorely lacking in documentation might not have to look much further for the reason things have gone awry, says Edgar Bonilla Torres, PMP, Heliosolar, Bogotá, Colombia.


Prioritize Paperwork

There's no way around it: If the new project manager finds that key documents are missing, he or she will need to create them from scratch, Mr. Bonilla Torres says.

That might entail holding targeted meetings with the project sponsor, individual team members and external stakeholders, as well as taking meticulous notes during early meetings. It can be time intensive, but such due diligence is necessary to complete a proper transition plan, he says.

Be mindful that a team not accustomed to creating and updating documents will need to embrace a culture shift. Stress early and often that, moving forward, documentation must be completed and submitted on time, Mr. Bonilla Torres says. Provide a documentation schedule and make it a point to follow up on deadlines.


Wary Team Members

When the new project manager is viewed as an interloper, it's time to rebuild trust. Some or all of the team members might be mistrustful, resentful, even mildly antagonistic, constituting a major obstacle to success, says Mr. Bonilla Torres.


Stress Collaboration

A shaky start doesn't have to doom team cohesion, Mr. Bonilla Torres says. Putting effort into building relationships and fostering respect can go a long way toward improving the dynamic.

“Make it clear you're part of the team, not just a higher authority, by asking team members for input and to identify any obstacles that need to be removed from their work,” he says. “That makes them more inclined to open up to you.”


—Edgar Bonilla Torres, PMP, Heliosolar, Bogotá, Colombia

Ms. Montalvo-Johnson recalls taking over a project midstream with a team that seemed to think project management was more of a hindrance than a help.

“I knew breaking into that group would be challenging,” she says. “If I tried to follow the strict rules of project management, they would do whatever they thought best, regardless.”

To demonstrate the value of project management, Ms. Montalvo-Johnson started with a small exercise. She asked team members to issue deployment instructions for a newly hired intern, who was told to follow each set of instructions exactly as they were written without communicating with the team. The resulting confusion brought the IT project to a halt.

“After that, they clearly realized that project management would be a way to ensure stability, clarity and consistency in the work they were doing,” she says. “I was no longer the interloper but the guide to success.”


—Sonia Montalvo-Johnson, PMP, General Dynamics, Canberra, Australia



Project Progress Is Clicking Along

Inheriting a project that's smooth sailing might not seem like a problem at all. But don't be fooled: Even experienced project managers will sometimes feel the urge to put their stamp on an initiative, introducing unnecessary changes that can throw execution for a loop. Project professionals who arbitrarily reshape things could be doing it “for their own aggrandizement, not for the good of the project,” Mr. Wenger says.


Challenge Changes

Of course, new project managers shouldn't hold themselves back from making valid suggestions. But before reconfiguring the work breakdown structure or introducing a new task tracker, it's worth asking: Will this truly improve the workflow or create better project outcomes? Is tweaking the system worth the risk of frustrating or confusing the team? Is the change really superior to the project's status quo, or is it simply something the project manager is accustomed to?

Sure, a project manager might have set up systems differently if they had helmed the project from the start. But sometimes, maintaining the status quo on an inherited initiative can actually make getting to the finish line quicker and easier. PM

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