Sad Truths About Project Rescues

This tweet got me thinking about the many project turn arounds I have seen over the last 20 so years. We’ve all seen the scenario play out time and again. The business pushes for more scope, faster delivery, and lower budgets. The project teams (I’ve seen this with both creative and IT teams) feel tremendous pressure to acquiesce to these demands. Even if the project manager makes a valiant defense of a rationale budget, scope, and timeline eventually they get worn down or overridden by their management and the inevitable happens. Management is promised a project the team knows in their hearts to be unrealistic, and everyone begins slogging away, hoping for a miracle, hoping for some break. Maybe some key elements on the critical path will come in early. Maybe the clients/sponsors will sign off on key deliverables within the planned 2 reviews. Almost never happens. If this is an IT project the odds are even lower, due to the vicious cycle of late and over budget projects which convince business sponsors that they need to dictate tighter budget and timeline constraints, knowing they will be missed, which in fact causes more projects to fall behind if not fail.

Then you have a project in Trouble. A project that is Red. And often, at least in the organizations I’ve worked with, people are brought in to to turn things around. I have had several of these put on my plate over the years, and the formula for success is usually very straight forward: tell the truth around what it is going to take to get the project done, or how much scope needs to come out to hit the time/budget. Yes, there are plenty of other things to do like look at the team structure, review and question the scope, re-vitalize the team, rebuild business confidence, look for efficiencies, etc. But for some reason that must be deeply connected to the human condition, when you first come on to turn something around, people are able to listen to reason. Even when what I am saying and calling for is exactly what the previous manager said, it was only once the project was in real jeopardy that the team was listened to.

And that last bit is exactly what I have found to be the key to success in turn-arounds. Listen to the team. Actually sit down with them, as many one on one as possible, and get them to open up about the project, what’s working, what is not, where they see the risk. For more thoughts on taking on a project in flight, see my previous post on the topic.

As for avoiding the situation, I would love to hear what others have found to be successful. And I would love to hear more pithy quips like the one that got this post started.

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