Project Management Institute

When projects go wrong


by PAUL C. DINSMORE, PMP, Contributing Editor

According to an old folk expression, “The more you do of what you're doing, the more you'll get of what you've got.” The message? It may be time for change. Whether you're faced with problems on all company projects, several projects or a single project, most professionals are faced with change issues.

If you shift your present approach, there's hope things will improve. However, the wrong changes could make matters worse.

Once you realize that change is necessary, you may ask: “Change to what? When? How?” Here are suggested solutions for three scenarios, from far-reaching to project-specific problems.

Scenario 1: All Projects Have Major Problems. Strong organizational adjustments are necessary to steer the company along a project-oriented pathway. This requires heavy support from the top and an organizationwide commitment to apply project techniques.

With the needed authority and resources in place, enterprise project management is the right approach…within quality specifications. This means that all projects—whether strategic, product-related, operational or aimed at capital investment—have common policies and procedures, and a common project management terminology is used throughout the organization. Some allowance is made for situations peculiar to specific areas, such as software development or research and development. To do this on a corporate level, a project office must be set up. The type depends on the size of the company, number of projects and, to some extent, company culture. When enterprise project management has support from upper management and a clear need for implementing good project practices across the organization is evident, project offices can include:

Corporate Project Management Office (CPMO), sometimes known as Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO)—This is a high-level staff function that reports to the CEO or COO and is charged with ensuring that project management policies and procedures exist and that methodologies are followed by the groups that manage them. The CPMO guarantees that the company uses up-to-date technology on projects.

Chief Project Officer (CPO)—In this case, the project office becomes a line function, and is headed by the CPO, who becomes responsible for the success of projects. The project managers report, from a project management standpoint, to the CPO, although technically the project manager may owe some allegiance to specific areas such as information technology, engineering or marketing. The CPO, who sits at the vice-presidential level, also takes on CPMO functions.

Scenario 2: When Things Don't Come Together on Several Projects. To zero in on groups of projects that are unsuccessfully managed, try the following techniques:

Project Management Audit—An internal or external group evaluates project management performance and practice on all troubled projects. Recommendations are made to correct each of the dysfunctions and progress is monitored to ensure that improvements are made.

Beef Up the Project Office—If a project office of some type already exists (perhaps a project support office), this group might be given additional powers to support and audit projects periodically.

Specific Area Upgrade—If most of the problems are from a given area, red-flag treatment must be given. This means crash courses in project management for the project teams, along with bringing in some experienced personnel at the project manager level.

Show Them How It's Done—Showcase project management practices in the hope that others will “catch on” by turning around a known “loser” project. This might mean bumping up the responsibilities for project management to a higher level to ensure sufficient managerial expertise.

Scenario 3: When Things Don't Work on a Specific Project. These “renegade projects” may take a course of their own. To turn around a single project, try one or more of the following approaches:

Size Up What's Going Wrong—Send in a specialist to see what the problem is and map out a program for change. Drastic action may be required, including personnel changes.

Call in the Smokejumpers—Call in a group of tested professionals, sometimes called smokejumpers, who rein in the project and mitigate the losses.

Update Risk Analysis—It may be appropriate to update the risk analysis and reevaluate the impact of the project on the company's bottom line. A turnaround team is generally costly, yet the cost of not changing the course of the project may be more expensive.

Re-Start Up—Using the same team, but with additional management direction, it may be feasible to bring a yawing project back on track. This requires a new kickoff meeting with a formal revised schedule and overall commitment of the team to completion of the schedule.

Whether priorities have changed or the project must be axed, the main requirement for turning around a single project is to ensure that it is objectively sized up and changes are swiftly made.

Heroes and Dedicated Project Teams: The Challenges Remain

Organizations need competent project management, no matter how difficult this is to accomplish. Author Tom Peters maintains that “heroes” are needed at the project manager level to complete projects successfully.

These heroes leap barriers, cut corners, break rules and outmaneuver political roadblocks in order to firmly steer the project safely to harbor at the appointed time. However, for every genuine hero working on projects, there are hundreds of regular project managers who are unable to perform heroic feats.

Dedicated project teams also are becoming scarce, and many projects are destined to muddle along in matrixed organizations, where people are stretched between several projects. You can't necessarily expect smooth sailing on all upcoming projects—even if you do everything by the book. PM

Paul C. Dinsmore, PMP, PMI Fellow, is the author of seven books, including Winning in Business Through Enterprise Project Management [Amacom, 1998]. He is president of Dinsmore Associates, with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Reach him by e-mail at


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