Project Management Institute

Succeeding with troubled projects

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There are three things we must always remember about any project:

  1. We must understand what it means for a project to “be in trouble”.
  2. No one may know or tell you a project is in trouble, including yourself.
  3. The only solution may be to terminate the project.

These three statements provide the framework for this paper. Anyone who has been involved with enough projects should already have an appreciation of all three statements and, very likely, has seen or been a part of projects which have been terminated. Before anyone gets the wrong idea on the last point, let me say here project termination is a last resort; there are other things to do and try before termination which I will address. As we proceed, then, I will define a “troubled project”, identify essential indicators, and present approaches to handling troubled projects.

What Is a Troubled Project ?

Every project is going to have its challenges along the way. If this were not the case, there would be little, if any, need for competent and capable professionals functioning as Project Managers. There is an abundance of information on indicators, metrics, and quantifiable and non-quantifiable factors which a Project Manager monitors and manages to keep a project out of trouble. Even with this abundance of information and with capable Project Managers, projects do get in trouble. What is meant when it is said a project is in trouble?

A “troubled project” has one or more of the following seven attributes. These attributes are beyond routine challenges encountered in most projects. Some of the attributes are quantifiable, others are not; all are significant.

Seven Attributes of Highly Troubled Projects

Five Predictors

  • The Project Sponsor, senior management, or stakeholders express dissatisfaction overtly or covertly.
  • Stakeholders or key players lack agreement on or understanding of requirements or objectives.
  • Resources to continue or to complete the project are quantifiably and demonstrably insufficient.
  • The project is grossly behind schedule, grossly over budget, or both.
  • Reasonable progress is not occurring within constraints.

Two Indicators

  • There is a trail of poor decisions, whether or not such decisions are acknowledged as such.
  • There are many rumors in the “grapevine” that the project is in trouble or is “on the chopping block”.

The first five attributes I call “predictors”, the last two “indicators”. I categorize them in this manner for a reason. When a project is in trouble, the predictors are of such severity that, if present, inattention guarantees, or “predicts”, failure. The indicators are of such severity that, if present, leaving them unaddressed seriously impairs the Project Manager's ability to execute project recovery; they clearly “indicate” the project is in trouble.

There certainly are other attributes which could be listed, but the seven attributes given cover most, if not all, troubled projects. Attributes such as “unrealistic requirements” or “impossible timelines” I leave out for a number of reasons, one being the subjectivity involved and another being reasonableness – would a reasonable organization or reasonable project have unrealistic requirements or impossible timelines to begin with?

Is The Project In Trouble ?

The two primary determinants in successfully recovering a troubled project are given below.

1) Acknowledging a project is in trouble.

2) Executing an effective recovery strategy.

Notice I say acknowledging rather than recognizing. Given “Seven Attributes of Highly Troubled Projects” above, troubled projects should be easy to recognize. As in Hans Christian Andersen's story, “The Emperor's New Clothes”, it may be just as obvious that the project is in trouble as it is that the Emperor is naked, and, just as in the story, no one is willing to acknowledge the obvious. Until the reality of the situation is acknowledged, the Emperor will continue proudly marching down the street for all to see - totally naked; or, in Project Management terms, an organization will continue proudly expending precious resources on and singing the praises of a project - while watching it fail.

It is possible, though less likely, one could be in or encounter an organization in which managers are of the “pointy haired boss” variety as portrayed in Scott Adams’ Dilbert© cartoons. In such a situation, a project could be in serious trouble and no one actually knows. Succeeding in this environment depends on the skills of the Project Manager.

The Project Manager must be willing to say to the Project Sponsor and Stakeholders, “This project is in trouble!” The Project Manager must have well documented, clear, and convincing evidence before going forward with this acknowledgement, and the particular wording may be more tactful, but it must be said. If it remains unspoken, it remains unacknowledged. If the senior management is competent, this fact will already be recognized and the Project Manager likely will be given credit for acknowledging it. A good Project Manager can make the statement without offending people's sensibilities. It should always be presented as being a solid and accurate assessment.

Getting the Context

We should have the answers to three key questions at the beginning of any initiative.

1. Where are we ?

2. Where do we need to be ?

3. How do we get there ?

When taking on or first recognizing a project in trouble, there is one more key question which must be answered:

4. How did we get here ?

Answering this question is, in short, an assessment. It is an assessment of everything that was done and the constraints in which everything was done. The assessment should be framed using Seven Attributes of Highly Troubled Projects. Assessing the project within this framework helps the Project Manager quickly get to the root causes for the project's current state.

An assessment is different than an investigation. If the assessment ever seems like an investigation, communication will come to a sudden halt and little will be learned. The Project Manager must maintain open communication at all levels with all parties.

In taking on a troubled project, some may say, with bravado even, and I have heard leaders say this very publicly,

“It doesn't matter how we got here! I am going to fix it!”

Such a statement may have use in shaping attitudes and expectations, in minimizing finger pointing or playing “the blame game”, or in contexts much larger than projects. When it comes to projects, however, it matters very much how a project got into trouble. If the project is going to get back on track, things have to change: some things, many things, or everything, depending on the extent of the difficulties and the importance of the project.

If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep on getting what you have been getting. One definition of insanity offered is doing the same thing with the same parameters while expecting a different result. Achieving a different outcome requires the actions, the parameters, or both, must change. Changing the actions or parameters means you must first know what they are. Identifying the decisions, actions and parameters which have affected and are affecting a project will inform the Project Manager how a project achieved its current state. The first priority in a troubled project, then is:

Discover and identify the decisions, actions and parameters resulting in the project's current state.

It is very important to make a distinction between answering “How did we get here?” and conducting the “lessons learned” activity. First, the “lessons learned” activity applies to all projects regardless of the outcome. “Lessons learned” includes what worked, what didn't work, what was acceptable, what would be done differently, rationales, quantitative inputs to databases and repositories, and a multitude of other components. Second, and most important for the project manager to understand, is that in “lessons learned”, the project is winding down, commitments and priorities are moving on to other demands, and the politics and relationship management aspects are very different. This latter point is the most crucial for the Project Manager to remember, so I will emphasize it:

Politics and relationship management are VERY different between project recovery and project closure.

How a project manager performs in this area alone can be the deciding factor in whether or not a troubled project becomes a successful project or a terminated project. Answering “How did we get here?” is politically sensitive. The Project Manager must be able to explore uncomfortable issues with people at all levels of an organization without conveying a hint of assigning blame, “digging for dirt”, creating division, or “fanning the flames”. The approach must convey positive objectives and positive outcomes for all concerned and the approach must match reality. If senior management is looking for a scapegoat, the Project Manager should avoid being the vehicle by which one is found and should convey that such an effort is best accomplished through other parties or means.

Recovery or Termination ?

Once the Project Manager completes a thorough assessment of the project, a decision to recover or terminate the project must be made. The Project Manager may recommend or even decide the project's future. In any case, the Project Manager's assessment is a key input to this decision. Before the Project Manager opts for recovery or termination, the Project Manager must consider what is involved in achieving either outcome. There are five essential questions in evaluating recovery or termination which must be answered in conjunction with the Project Manager's assessment.

1) How important is the project to the Project Sponsor, the Stakeholders, and the organization?

2) What are the organizational impacts and resource requirements in achieving desired outcomes?

3) Can the project continue as originally conceived and defined or must it be redeveloped?

4) Is the necessary political support available to go forward in achieving the desired outcomes?

5) Are you personally able and willing to do what needs to be done to make the project successful?

Using the answers to these five essential questions in determining recovery or termination is a judgment call. There is no one formula or quantification that will work for all or even most organizations. Note that “achieving desired outcomes” may include project termination.

If the decision is to terminate the project, the Project Manager initiates project closure and proceeds accordingly. In the next section, I present strategies which may be used for project recovery. I would like to be optimistic and say most projects can have a successful recovery and, while this is my general disposition towards projects, I also recognize the realities Project Managers deal with and observe that many projects are terminated without the opportunity to even be considered for recovery.

The Road to Recovery

Projects only exist because of people, and no one, Project Manager's included, can escape human nature. Two principles of human nature affect willingness to acknowledge a troubled project and whether or not anything is done about it.

1) That which is familiar is comfortable.

2) When the pain to remain the same is greater than the pain to change, then change will happen.

The challenge with projects is we are also dealing with organizations in addition to organisms. How does an organization experience a sense of pain and motivation for change which is similar to the pain and motivation for change in an individual? It happens in four ways:

Organizational Motivations For Project Recovery

1) Political pressure, which may represent potential loss of resources, influence, or control.

2) Opportunity for increasing or gaining resources, influence or control.

3) Scarcity of resources.

4) A sense of obligation to “do the right thing” or “do what is best.”

In most cases, a Project Manager has only the last three motivations available to work with. Given a project is of sufficient important to an organization, the Project Manager must build a business case which justifies recovering the project. A Project Manager may require assistance from Stakeholders, the Project Sponsor, and other key players in building the business case. An essential part of the business case is the recovery strategy. What is going to be done to make the project successful? Defining the recovery strategy is very similar to initiating a new project in that the same three questions must be answered:

1) Where are we?

2) Where do we need to be?

3) How do we get there?

The first question has already been answered in the assessment of the troubled project. Answering the second question may result in an entirely new project charter, keeping the original, or something in between. The answer to the third question is the strategy for project recovery. The Project Manager can use several approaches in creating a recovery strategy, depending on the answer to the second question above. The specific approach depends on an final evaluation of all of the information gathered so far. Five or more of the following techniques must be applied.

Ten Recovery Techniques

1) Retain the original requirements and objectives and redevelop the project plans.

2) Modify the original requirements and objectives and replan accordingly.

3) Replace the original requirements and objectives while keeping the project identity.

4) Terminate the project and start a new one with the same or new requirements and objectives.

5) Make changes in key personnel involved in the project.

6) Restructure project team and/or increase project controls and reporting.

7) Solidify political, Project Sponsor, Senior Management, Stakeholder, and Project Team support.

8) Create a strong communications program with a strong positive message about the changes.

9) Convey and maintain a “Can do!” attitude and environment.

10) Make personal commitments to ensure the success of the recovery.

The last four techniques apply in all cases. One or more of the first six must be applied for the project to recover. Whether or not the project is “reincarnated” with a new name and identity depends on the organizational culture and how the troubled project is perceived. In some cases, keeping the original project identity may make recovery very difficult or even impossible due to perceptions of the project. In other cases, such as when funding is tied to a project, it may be necessary to keep the project name and identity but radically change the project itself.

The Final Analysis

It should be apparent at this point that succeeding with troubled projects requires a Project Manager possess and apply a significant amount of courage, personal commitment, energy, time, and political savvy. In some cases, because of the organization or the nature of a given situation, a Project Manager may have to choose between saving a project and saving one's position in an organization. Saving a project in serious trouble may build one's professional reputation and open other doors of opportunity with greater challenges while at the same time result in leaving a position or organization. Which course of action an individual takes in such cases is a personal decision. In a good situation, a Project Manager saving an important project from failure would be rewarded within the organization. Reality is, it doesn't always happen. Determine first if saving a troubled project will be worth the personal or professional cost. I am one person who has built a career saving troubled projects. Will you join me?

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003



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