So, You Inherited a Failing Project…Here’s What to Do Next

May 1, 2018 by Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin



Dear Elizabeth: I’ve inherited a sinking ship of a project. I didn’t know things were so bad when I took it on, and now it looks like I have a turnaround situation on my hands. No one seems to know what we need to do, the schedule is totally unrealistic, the client is unhappy, and team morale has plummeted, even since I got involved. It feels like we’re in freefall! How do I right this project before it takes us all down?

Act quickly and decisively is the short answer!

You don’t have long to make positive changes to the project, because, as you’ve already realized, the situation is pretty bad.

First up, let’s be honest with the client about how things are going. This isn’t going to be an easy conversation, but they probably already know that the project isn’t an amazing showcase for brilliant delivery. They will have picked up on the situation and are probably worried that they are throwing money away on this project.

Related: How to Build Good Relationships with Stakeholders

This is the same whether it’s an external client and you work in an agency or consulting environment or your client is a team manager who sits down the hall, working for the same company as you.

Internal clients are even more likely to be aware of the issues with their project, and will have the same concerns:

So, have that difficult conversation, and let the client know that you are aware of the issues and that you have a plan to resolve them. You’ll keep them updated with new developments and they’ll be involved every step of the way (if they want to be). Your objective is to give them confidence in your ability to turn this project around.

However, you can also use the conversation to ask them if they really want the project.

Frankly, the easiest way out of this mess is to shut the project down and move on to other things, and perhaps that’s an option if the client has moved past the point of needing the project. Just a thought!

One of the issues you mentioned was that no one seems to know what to do. The only way you are going to address this is if you go back to basics and revisit the requirements. Get the client involved in this work too.

Prioritize the requirements. There will be some elements you absolutely have to have, some that will be optional for now and some that can be put on hold for a while, which you can describe as being packaged into a Phase 2 of the current project, or a future release.

Go back to the original requirements documentation (if there was any) and review that, or the user stories. Create a new, hopefully streamlined, set of requirements for the project. Now you can create clarity around what this project is delivering, and that will have positive benefits for the client, the team and you.

With that new improved view of clear requirements, it’s time to update your schedule. You want to get to a position where there is clarity about how long things are going to take and what has to happen in what order.

It’s fine to have some elements of uncertainty in a schedule, and using dynamic tools will help you manage that.

Sometimes schedules become out of date because the uncertainty inherent in doing new work isn’t factored in. For example, if you look at the best- and worst-case scenarios for how long it takes to do a certain piece of work, you can calculate the most likely scenario, but still allow for the others to be true too.

Dynamic scheduling gives you more flexibility, gives you more chance of hitting milestones, and lets you have an intelligent conversation with your client about what are realistic delivery dates.

Related: What is Dynamic Scheduling?

Get the team involved in planning. They should be estimating their tasks and committing to dates. You can also look at resource availability to make sure you have people who are free to do the work at the required time. Remember that people’s availability can change, with sickness absence, for example, or simply that another task does take longer than expected for whatever reason. Keep an eye on resource allocation as you go through the project and make sure you know how to quickly reallocate work if necessary.

Schedules aren’t ever fixed in stone, so your team still has to acknowledge that there could be changes. However, once you’ve been through this exercise together, you should have a new version of the schedule that feels realistic and achievable, and that delivers what you need to do for the project.

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