Patrick White
How To Take Over a Failing Project
Patrick WhiteJuly 16, 2013

As project managers, we are often asked to step in and take the lead on a project that is already underway. The reasons for the change can vary—staff turnover, a need to reallocate resources, or the project simply not proceeding the way the client expected it to. So what should you do when you take over a failing project?

  1. Confirm why the project exists (i.e., confirm the scope and objective). The first step is reviewing the existing project documentation to understand why the project was created. A meeting with the project sponsors or clients can help determine if the scope or goals have changed. Now is the time to get the project team back on the same page to avoid misaligned expectations that can negatively impact the effort moving forward.
  2. Understand why the project is off-track (root cause analysis). Projects can derail for a variety of reasons, including time and budget overruns; poor communication with influential stakeholders; unrealistic time lines for the desired scope; changes to the strategic vision that impact the objective of the project; and resource constraints. The best way to gain the confidence of the project team and your sponsors is to identify why the project is not proceeding as planned and make sure that it doesn’t happen again. The most effective way to identify the source of the issue is to interview those closest to the project to understand why it was not meeting expectations.
  3. Open the lines of communication. Once the project’s objective is confirmed and the root cause of its issues identified, it is crucial to establish a process to maintain communication. Project managers are too often reluctant to communicate with their sponsors for fear of bothering them or wasting their time. But, their role as a sponsor is most effective when they are actively involved and can remove obstacles as they arise. Maintaining constant communication with sponsors and major stakeholders also allows them to hear about incremental progress on the project, not just when there are issues.
  4. Create small wins to regain trust. To turn a failing project around, it is important to regain the trust of everyone involved by demonstrating quick, incremental wins. Establish and meet meaningful near-term milestones that are only one to two weeks away. These quick “wins” will show the project team and sponsors that the project team is successfully moving forward and able to keep its commitments.

When handled correctly, you can turn a failing project into one that quickly demonstrates progress toward the right goal, has safeguards in place to mitigate future issues, and has communication mechanisms in place to address potential problems before they become difficult to manage.