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Failing Projects: Five Steps to Rapid Recovery

Project failure can occur for an infinite number of reasons. Sometimes its out of your control. Maybe a blizzard caused your group to miss a series of deadlines or fail to deliver necessary components for your project. Maybe you lost a key member of your project team, or were given unrealistic deadlines. But sometimes it’s in your control. You underestimated the time a project would take. You didn’t take steps to ensure quality. Regardless of the causes, failed projects waste billions of dollars (and hours) each year.

But, what about the period of time just before a project is considered a failure? Projects don’t go from on track to failed overnight. In the meantime, they’re troubled. And the ‘troubled’ period, however distressing, is an opportunity – often the absolute last opportunity – to turn things around and make the project a success. How do we assess a troubled project? When do we put a recovery approach into action? How do we truly rein in a project on the brink of failure?

This article gives a brief introduction to the five steps critical to recovery, highlighting the major activities and actions necessary for turning a failing project into a success.

Figure 1 highlights these five steps and the deliverables of each.

Figure 1: Overview of Rapid Assessment and Recovery Process

Step 1—Defining the Charter

The project charter delegates authority to the recovery project manager (RPM), who is typically an individual from outside the project. Because the RPM and his or her team are “outsiders” it is important at the outset that the project manager (PM) and his or her team are committed to working with the assessment and recovery team (ART). The charter process ensures that this is accomplished before proceeding.

In this important first step you are attempting to identify and agree on a number of critical elements which will be included in the project charter. The essential tasks include:

  • Defining the mission with the sponsor.
  • Understanding the project history and sensitivities.
  • Establishing initial project team contact.
  • Determining the assessment approach.
  • Completing the charter and obtaining approval.

Step 2—Developing the Assessment Plan

Using ESI’s Rapid Assessment Model (Figure 2), the ART is now ready to rapidly—but thoroughly—develop the assessment plan.

Figure 2: Rapid Assessment Model

Using this model, the ART will develop an assessment plan that:

  • Is realistic and can be executed to achieve the charter’s objectives
  • Will allow for an assessment in as short a time as possible
  • Will ensure that accurate findings are produced
  • Will minimize project team distraction

This model centers around two areas of activity at this stage: conducting the interviews and analysing project data. To do this, the ART will:

  1. Identify the critical documentation that needs to be reviewed and analysed
  2. Identify the stakeholders who need to be interviewed
  3. Prepare the agenda and interview schedule

As a practical matter, a realistic assessment plan will also consider the geographic distribution of the ART, the project team and the stakeholders to be interviewed. Additionally, the ART should expect a certain level of resistance from the core project team to their activities. After all, the ART is involved because the project has experienced trouble and key stakeholders do not believe the project team can correct its own mistakes. Remember, in planning the assessment the work must be done as rapidly as possible and with as little disruption to the project team as they continue working on the project.

Step 3—Conducting the Assessment

The ART is now ready to execute the Assessment Plan, which has three main areas of focus:

  • Determining the true current status of the project
  • Identifying the major threats, opportunities and problems for the project moving forward
  • Establishing an extended team for the recovery effort

One of the keys to successful conclusion of this step is to get off on the right foot—which means conducting a kick-off meeting with the extended assessment team. This includes all ART team members, project team members, customers, vendors (if applicable) and sponsors, as well as other key stakeholders whose support is required. The RPM needs to remind the extended team of the purpose, scope and objectives of the assessment. This can be accomplished by reviewing the charter with the group. Also, everyone must understand that the focus of the assessment is on helping the project team, not finding fault with past actions and decisions.

Executing the assessment plan includes:

  • Conducting the interviews
  • Analysing the data
  • Developing a rank-ordered list of findings

Step 4—Developing the Recovery Plan

The focus of this step is on developing a recovery project plan and assembling an extended team to accomplish the work. In many ways, assembling a team and getting the job done is a project in itself. However, the ART is now faced with a situation where, because of poor performance, they might have a difficult time obtaining buy-in and support or having motivated team members on board. Recall the characteristics of a troubled project—confidence has been lost, people are out of patience. In such a situation, once the ART has re-baselined the project, the schedule cannot slip again. This makes developing an achievable plan of paramount importance. The ART needs committed and dedicated team members to make this happen.

The development of the recovery plan takes into consideration how the RPM will address people and personnel issues, the specific project management processes that will be employed moving forward, and the decisions that need to be made relative to the product/service which is the output of the project. To clarify, the RPM must:

  • Focus on building everyone’s morale
  • Deal directly with personnel problems
  • Resolve serious leadership problems
  • Add people to the project carefully, if at all

When looking at processes used in the project the ART will:

  • Establish a schedule based on inchstones (as opposed to larger “milestones”)
  • Track schedule progress meticulously
  • Record the reasons for missed inchstones
  • Recalibrate the plan every two weeks
  • Never commit to a new baseline until an achievable one can be created
  • Painstakingly manage risks

Finally, in regards to the product of the project, forward progress will made only if the ART and key stakeholders—

  • Stabilise the requirements
  • Trim the feature set to meet schedule and cost constraints
  • Reduce the number of defects and implement a quality control plan to keep them low
  • Strive diligently to achieve a “steady state”

Step 5—Conducting Recovery

As the team monitors the execution of each inchstone, it will conduct variance analysis at the end of each week. This analysis can only be accomplished if, on a daily basis, the ART is recording the inchstones completed and the daily labor hours recorded by task, skill and person. The collection of this data is only possible if everyone records their daily activities, which is not something that project team members typically do on other projects. You may find it helpful to use “desk-side labor logs,” daily accounting of hours worked on specific tasks by a member of the ART or extended team. The team must also maintain surveillance on other project control metrics, including:

  • Earned value
  • Defects
  • Problems
  • Risks

At the end of each week, the inchstone plan will be updated and the ART will:

  • Re-plan the next rolling 3-week period
  • Examine variances by estimator
  • Define or re-define workload for next period
  • Obtain new estimates for the next period from estimator
  • Acknowledge progress (team, sponsor, customer feedback) to build morale

When the project has been restored to a useful condition and the transition to the project team has been completed, an exit review with the project team and key stakeholders will be conducted. In the exit review, the RPM is looking for the stakeholders to “sign off” on the recovery effort and acknowledge that the ART has been successful and met its objectives. If the stakeholders agree, this is a major accomplishment for everyone. If, however, there is disagreement, it can be demoralising for all involved. Therefore, the RPM should exercise caution before calling this meeting, ensuring that everyone will agree the objectives are complete before the meeting is conducted.

Your Next Troubled Project

Assessing and working to recover troubled projects can be some of the most difficult work a project manager ever has to perform. However, the payoff—whether for an RPM or the actual project manager—is huge. You’ve saved a project from failure status! The five steps above are crucial for monitoring your projects and improving them before they reach “failed” status. Some key tips for each of the five steps include:

  • Do not declare victory too soon
  • Sustained control is necessary
  • Involve all stakeholders—politics are key
  • At the first sign of trouble, define the problem and solution and alert the stakeholders

So, we see that sometimes a little extra effort in inspection, analysis and planning can make the difference between a failed project and a successful one. You just need to know the right way to do it.

If you’d like more practical help and training, take a look at the Rapid Assessment and Recovery of Troubled Projects course

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About Nadine Rochester

Nadine Rochester
Nadine is the EMEA Marketing Director at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution

One comment

  1. My book called Project and Program Turnaround was published this year by Taylor & Francis. It is based on my 37 years at Lockheed Aircraft and Lockheed Martin observing what made programs execute exceptionally, then applying what I saw to save big programs in trouble with !00% success.

    I believe this book would be an excellent supplemental read for your students.

    Please contact me with any questions,

    Best Regards,

    Thomas (Tom) Pavelko
    tpavelko@att.net
    thomaspavelko.com
    projectandprogramturnaround.blog
    office: 408-733-1076 mobile: 408-981-1133

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