7 Actions to Take When Joining a Project Underway

November 16, 2017 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMPChristian Knutson, P.E., PMP

Many of us dream of becoming the director for a major program with numerous projects, a staff, and an opportunity to create something from nothing. In this dream, which I know I’ve had on more than one occasion, you get to select your team, develop the processes and procedures that will be used by the team, and shape the development of the Project Management Office. The ideal situation.

Unfortunately, this dream is just that for most project managers—a dream. More often than not, you won’t be able to pick your team, establish the processes, or develop the PMO. Instead, you’ll find yourself doing bits and pieces of these at the same time you’re scrambling to deal with a program that’s already under way.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of initiating a program one time. The remainder of the programs I inherited during the planning or the benefits delivery phase. Far from ideal, becoming involved in a project or a program that is already underway requires one to focus more diligently on a few key elements.

Project management is challenging regardless when you assume the leadership role. There’s a mountain of literature written about the skills effective project managers leverage when leading a project and it all seems to assume that you’re in the game from the start. This won’t always be the case. For example, maybe you’re hired into a new project manager role on an already awarded contract or you’re called on to replace a non-performing project manager.

Taking lead on a project already underway relies on the same skills that you’d call on if you’d been on the project from the beginning. However, there are seven specific knowledge areas that are most important and will require your attention.

One cannot assume that every project or program will have a well-defined governance structure in place by the time it gets underway. Regardless of what phase you join a project, make sure you evaluate the governance framework to determine if it’s properly structured.

This means that the right stakeholders are involved at the right levels; the right meeting frequency is in place; there are clear terms of reference spelling out roles and responsibilities of each echelon of the framework; and decisions are being made at the appropriate level. On complex projects, it’s vitally important that governance is appropriately structured so that senior stakeholders are informed at the right time and in the right fashion for making timely decisions.

A project underway will have generated some lessons learned, so find out what these are. Talk with project team members and key stakeholders who have been with the project since initiation to determine what the key positives and negatives have been on the project. Looking at lessons learned while the project is still underway will help determine if there are possible adjustments to be made that have been missed by the staff.

You can also bring in lessons learned from other projects you’ve successfully managed, or best practices used by other project teams, to bolster performance on your project. In short, don’t assume that performance enhancements have been applied by the project team. Look for opportunities and work with your team to implement them.

Project managers spend the vast majority of their time communicating with other people and developing relationships. When you’re involved on a project from concept onwards, you have the opportunity to develop relationships with other stakeholders while the project is taking shape.

When you join a project underway, however, you have to insert yourself into relationships that have already formed. The longer a project has been underway, the more difficult this is, as team members have more shared experience together.

Take time to identify the most influential stakeholders. Then, focus on developing relationships with each of them. The process for doing this will vary, so you need to apply your emotional intelligence skills so as not to make any social or professional mistakes.

I like to start with informal office calls in one-on-one or small-group settings. I follow this with working lunches or group dinners. The main goal is developing rapport with the most influential people outside of formal project meetings. The benefit from doing this is a more cordial working relationship during formal meetings and a greater likelihood of collaboration when challenging situations arise.

Early in my Air Force career I heard the saying, “Never let your lack of experience keep you from speaking with authority.”

I’m not entirely certain, but I don’t think this was a joke. As a second lieutenant, you lack real-world experien...

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