Project Management Institute

Rescue Mission

How to Bring Order to a Project in Chaos

By Fred Wenger III, PMP


Rescuing a troubled project is among the toughest tasks a project manager can be assigned. But if you are given the opportunity to become involved in a project rescue, I highly recommend taking it. You'll have the chance to hone your analytical, management and leadership skills. Early in my project management career, I was called in to work on such a project and it proved to be a great experience.

The project was the complete modernization of a 46,000-square-foot (4,274-square-meter) military barracks in Germany that was built in the 1930s. The facility had to be brought up to 21st-century standards, with central heating, ventilation, air conditioning, fiber-optic cabling, IT equipment, fire safety systems, full anti-intrusion systems, an elevator and a fire escape. The client was the U.S. government, and the project featured multiple stakeholders, budgets and lines of authority. The initial budget was around US$7 million but had grown to nearly US$11 million. The schedule had slipped almost a year. By the time I arrived as the project manager, it was hard to distinguish the project's true scope, schedule and budget from fantasy.

By the time I arrived, it was hard to distinguish the project's true scope, schedule and budget from fantasy.

The project owner wanted to know how the project had gotten off track, the causes for the expanded scope (which had significantly increased the budget and schedule) and the change management process in place that should have been used to control these issues.

First, I reviewed the project records and documentation, including the change management process, communication plan, stakeholder engagement plans and project progress reports. Then I was able to explain the project's challenges in detail to the client. I was also able to establish an accurate baseline for the project's scope, schedule and budget, which helped me to develop and implement a rescue plan.

I began to understand what had gone wrong: a rudimentary breakdown in the project planning process. The project had not been organized according to the guidelines in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Project decisions were made in a rush. This created preventable challenges to project completion. One of the biggest failures in planning was the lack of detail in requirements development, as optional additions to the scope were added without a full understanding of the impact to the overall project. Other mistakes included a lack of a robust communication plan in order to keep the owner and stakeholders apprised of project planning and progress. Finally, a lack of transparency in the change management process enabled “nice to have” desires to become “must have” requirements.

After briefing the project owner and stakeholders, I developed a recovery plan and began implementing it. The budget was able to be recovered though value engineering and descoping some of the added “requirements.” Ultimately, my team and I turned over a fully commissioned and functioning building to the owner.

As projects go, this was one of my favorites. I was able to use my knowledge and skills and demonstrate to the owner, stakeholders and project team that projects work best when everyone involved is aware of the issues at hand and the desired outcomes.

In my mind, the lesson is clear: Don't miss an opportunity to work on a challenged project. You will have a chance to showcase your skills and prove the value of good project management. In the chaos of a failing project lies the opportunity to excel. PM

img Fred Wenger III, PMP, is managing director of Marine Corps programs and senior program manager at The Louis Berger Group, Washington, D.C., USA.
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