Every project manager has heard or experienced one or many of the following statements:
- Milestones keep getting pushed out
- It is impossible to establish what progress has been made
- The team is defensive about the progress
- Budget limits have been exceeded and cost estimates keep changing
- Team members are working at over 100% utilization
And then there is the question, why and how does a project get in trouble? Even though the technical answers are many, there are also those that have to do with people's natural tendencies of denial. These tendencies aggravate the problems encountered during the execution of the project rather than help solve them. Our presentation will cover a practical and friendly model to recover projects in trouble using a reinforcement and support strategy based on the best practices outlined in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and Organizational Project Management Maturity Model Knowledge Foundation.
It is vital to understand the symptoms and root causes of a project in troubled. These will be the triggers to invoke the Project Management Reinforcement and Support Process (PMRS) process to rescue the project. The comparative analysis of the current status of projects versus the projected plan will help in the evaluation of the appropriate corrective actions (basic, moderate, and extreme). A project with serious problems might require the extreme decision of holding all activities, complete re-planning or even a close out. However, given that the nature of each project is unique, all factors must be analyzed and understood before a decision for a course of action is taken.
The use of earned value techniques such as the Plan Value (PV), Actual Cost (AC), and Earned Value (EV) to forecast the recovery, make the PRMS process to be predictable and controlled. Other critical success factors in the recovery process of a project are the analytic capabilities and project management skills of the project manager as well as the support from the established Project Management Office (PMO) and the senior executives of the organization.
The recovery process is not an isolated function of each project. Instead, it is an organizational competency that should be nurtured and supported by the PMO and the Portfolio Project Management (PPM) office.
As a project manager, at some point in your career, you will find yourself facing the inevitable: your project is over in cost, schedule or both. Don't despair, you are not the first to be in this situation and believe me, you will not be the last.
Since 1994, the Standish Group has been publishing the CHAOS report (2006), which is the compilation of detailed research on the topic of project success and failure. The trend indicates movement in the right direction. Today, we are delivering a lot more successful projects than a decade ago. However, the number of successful projects is still low taking in consideration that there has been much research and education conducted in the area of project management.
The Standish Group collects all the data and information of their own research on project success and failure in a series of chapters, dedicating the first chapter to “Creating CHAOS”. The following chapters deal with project success factors:
- User Involvement
- Executive Management Support
- Experienced Project Manager
- Clear Business Objectives
- Minimizing Scope. The Standish Group also states that time is the enemy of all projects and scope equals time.
- Agile Requirements Process
- Standard software infrastructure
- Formal project methodology
- Reliable estimates
- Skilled staff
- Effective tools: project management, requirements and quality
The 2006 CHAOS Research reports that 46% of projects were challenged; which means that the projects were late, over budget and/or did not meet requirements. And that 19% percent of projects outright failed; which means that they were cancelled prior to completion or completed and never used. (Liao, 2007 p. 10)
The intent of covering the CHAOS report is neither to review its content nor to paint a grim picture of project management; rather, it is to set the stage for the Project Management Reinforcement and Support (PMRS) model supported by a quantifiable approach and to present best practices that if implemented will help your project end in the success column, save money and increase client satisfaction.
Traditionally, and very much accurately, projects run into trouble because of schedule and cost overruns. Project Managers are in a constant quest to understand, find and correct the root causes of these two critical overruns. Today, there are many techniques and methodologies helping the Project Managers in this journey; Earned Value, Requirements Management, and Quality Standards, just to mention a few. It is generally accepted perspective that trouble projects are not the result of one single problem but, rather, are a combination of multiple neglected indicators of poor project performance (Hill, 2004). We will explore some of these indicators in more detail as reinforcement and support of best project management best practices.
Symptoms of Troubled Projects
To recognize a project that is in trouble is not an easy task and it is much harder if the project manager is not aware where the project is headed. So, to avoid future troubles is very important that the project manager knows how to identify the symptoms of a project that is going off track from the planned activities.
To ensure that we stay within the Project Management Institute (PMI®) guidelines outlined in the PMBOK® Guide, we have grouped some of the most common symptoms based on the 9 Knowledge Areas:
- The members of the project team feel that they do not have clear objectives of what they have been tasked with
- There is no visible senior management support
- There is no formal and structured change control process to address adjustments in the scope, schedule, cost or quality of the project
- The members of the project team feel that there is no clear scope for the work
- There is no clear understanding of all the deliverables in scope
- It is obvious that no change control process is in place to deal with changes in the scope of the project
- There is a significant Schedule overrun (20% over or whatever the threshold is in your organization)
- The planned dates for completion of deliverables have been missed
- Over or under utilization of resources assigned to tasks (People-hours)
- There is a significant Cost overrun (20% over or whatever the threshold is in your organization)
- The burned rate of hours is higher than expected compared to plan
- Lack of formal quality assurance plans
- Higher number of reported errors than expected
- Insufficient time allocated for different testing phases
Human Resources Management
- Low moral indicators present in the team environment
- No clear indication of ownership for deliverables
- There is a high rate of conflicts among team members
- There is no formal process for managing risks
- Overly confident resources believing that nothing will or could go wrong
- The mitigation plans are not sound or viable
- No clear ownership of risks
- The results of mitigation plans do not provide the expected outcome
- No formal strategy to communicate with Project stakeholders
- Communication is only verbal
- No centralized communication repository
- Procurement requirements were not outlined in the Statement of Work
- No clear process to evaluate or assess service providers
- No skilled negotiators leading the procurement process
Symptoms, Causes and Strategies
Symptoms are a warning sign system that helps the Project Manager gauge the current health of the Project. If these symptoms are not addressed early in the process; bigger challenges in the future will have to be overcome.
Human Resources Management
Criteria to implement the PMRS Process
A Project Management Reinforcement and Support process helps organizations identify troubled projects in the early stage of their execution. The evaluation phase helps determine the current health of the project providing the foundation for the recommended strategy to turn the troubled project into a successful one. Before a PMRS process can be successfully implemented in an organization, three key conditions must exist: 1. Executive Support, 2. A Project Management Office (PMO) and 3. A project management methodology standardized across the organization.
Assessment of Troubled Projects by Area of Knowledge
The reason we have addressed the indicator's symptoms and causes in the first section of this paper, is to make the reader more familiar with the questions of the assessment and their organization based on the nine PM knowledge areas and the five PMBOK® Guide groups of processes. Project assessments are necessary and key for understanding the project's strengths and weaknesses; recognizing symptoms, identifying root causes and establishing strategies such as those mentioned in the Symptoms, Causes, and Strategies section of the paper with the intention to recover the project.
Communication and Marketing of the PMRS process
In organizations where the project management maturity level is low (i.e. no PMO Office is established, or standardized PM methodology is in place), it is commonly observed that most project managers tend not to accept or recognize that their projects are in trouble unless they feel a sense of total collapse. To address and change this behavior the organization must clearly communicate the PMRS process and provide a support environment for all project managers where they feel safe in asking for help. To ensure adoption of the PMRS process within the culture of the organization, the following strategies need to be implemented:
- Secure senior management full support of the vision and mission of the PMRS
- Highlight the impact to the organization's bottom line if trouble projects are not taken seriously
- Market the process for what it is: 1. Reinforcement of project management best practices and 2. Project manager support
- Make the process a formal tool within the organization's project management process
- Provide the appropriate training
- Integrate the PMRS process with the PMO functions and the Project Portfolio Management
Organization and Complexity Levels of a Project in Recovery
In our opinion, there are three levels of recovery for troubled projects: Basic, Moderate and Extreme. The percentage associated with each level corresponds to the percentage of project management best practices currently followed by the assessed project.
Project Management Reinforcement and Support Process
It is important that the recovery of the projects be done systematically in an organization, in that way, our paper presents the following group of processes to guarantee a successful recovery process.
Identifying troubled projects is not an easy task; it requires having clearly defined criteria to identify them. Most importantly, identifying troubled projects in the early stage will avoid future losses and other inconveniences for the organization. As the graph below explains, the identification of schedule deviations in the early phase of a project will make the recovery easier than if the deviation is identified in the late phase.
The criteria to identify possible troubled projects must be defined according to the best practices of project management currently implemented in an organization and the indicators mentioned earlier. Let's review some examples of these criteria.
- Working environment: measure the working environment by the project's team moral and the level of conflicts among project team members. We recommend measuring this working environment using surveys at the appropriate intervals
- % Cost deviation: Determine the deviation of the budget from the cost baseline
- % Schedule deviation: Determine the deviation of the time from the schedule baseline
- Quality of deliverables: Measure the % of deviation of error from the number of expected defects
- Scope and Integrated change control: Measure the number of approved change requests during all phases of the project
- Risk Management: Measure the exposure to risk of the project and ensure that all identified risks have a risk response strategy
We recommend that these criteria be implemented systematically at the portfolio level to ensure consistency and relevance with all projects of an organization.
The assessment process consists in interviewing key project stakeholders such as project steering committee, sponsor, project manager, and project team members. Reviewing factual data to determine the current project status and plan the corrective actions is necessary to recover the project.
To assess the project we have prepared a questionnaire that captures detailed information about the planning, executing and controlling status of the projects. See sample questions in the Exhibit 4A
The final result of the assessment is a project health report showing the project status graphically organized by knowledge areas and process groups of the PMBOK® Guide as the shown in the Exhibit 4 B.
To calculate the overall project compliance with the project management best practices of the assessment, we will consider that initiating and planning best practices has the same importance than executing and controlling best practices, so in this example the overall assessment will be the average of both (46%), which means that this project is in the extreme recovery level. See Exhibit 3.
Initiate the recovery
To formally initiate the recovery process, the project manager will elaborate a Project Recovery Charter and formally communicate the beginning of the recovery. The Project Recovery Charter captures the commitment of all people involved in the project's recovery efforts including the project's executive steering committee, sponsor and the project's recovery team members.
The elaboration of the project's recovery charter follows the same guidelines as the original project charter with the emphasis on the goals, objectives and strategies to recover the project.
Plan the Recovery
Having the approval from the project's executive steering committee the project manager can proceed with the elaboration of the Project Recovery Plan, following the corrective and preventive actions recommended in the assessment.
We have to consider that the recovery of projects at level 2 and 3, sometimes involves the re-evaluation of the original project objectives and scope, possibly changing the project's sponsor, manager, team leaders and even team members.
Some typical corrective actions to be considered in the plan are 1) fast-tracking some group of activities, 2) crashing some critical path activities and 3) decompose the schedule in more detailed activities to facilitate micromanagement
Plan Level 2 (Moderate recovery)
For Level 2 the project recovery plan and corrective actions are implemented thru a formal change request and considering all recommendations about the level 2 showed in Exhibit 1. It is very important to mention that in this level the project baseline is preserved, a new recovery baseline is established and the recovery is executed within the original time line of the project.
Plan Level 3 (Extreme recovery)
In this case we follow the recommendations corresponding to level 3 of the recovery outlined in exhibit 3 to stop the project, and use all the project team members to re-plan the entire project. A new project baseline will be created as described in Exhibit 5. The commitments about time and cost will be extended substantially.
Execute and Control the Recovery
In this process we monitor and control the implemented corrective actions, prepare the status reports corresponding to the progress of the recuperation, risk and issues report and change requests. The monitoring and controlling of the recovery process thru an executive steering committee is a key strategy to obtain all the necessary resources, resolve issues quickly and obtain decision faster to stay the course.
For level 2, is very important to monitor and control the progress of the project recovery baseline against the initial project baseline and the real progress of the project.
For level 3 we will monitor the real progress against the new project baseline as it is shown below in Exhibit 6.
In all recovery process there are great lessons learned that are very important to preserve as organizational assets that will serve for future projects and recoveries.
Close the Recovery
Finally after having executed the project recovery plan and achieved the goals of the recovery (time, cost, and scope), we can proceed with the closing of the recuperation putting emphasis to lesson learned about the recovery process.
It is important to mention that the closing of the recovery process not necessarily imply that it be at the same time that the closing of the project, but the recovery process can be before the project be completed just taking into consideration it be the right moment to leave it, which means that the project is in good health and under the control of the initial project team.
Relationship of PMRS and PMO/PPM.
- We recommend PMRS process be implemented as a PMO function, where the PMO manage the process and provide the necessary executive support to assure the success of the project.
- Take the recovery process as an allied for the success of the project portfolio and the strategic plan of the organization.
- Implement micro management practices during the recovery process paying attention to details
- Provide extensive training to sustain credibility and expertise
- Promote project managers who have experience recovering projects as new counselors or advisors for project recovering.
- Ensure that resources involved in the recovery process have passion for project management
- All projects do not have the same level of problems for that reason not all projects must follow the same process of recuperation.
- Establish an executive committee for projects under recovery.
- Incorporate project recovery functions to the PMO and the Project Portfolio Management of the organization.