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Project Rescue & the Heroic Project Manager

~ By Vladimir Cordier

Businessman revealing the inner superhero

If there's one thing good project managers are excelling at - and I mean really good PMs - it is rescuing projects. Indeed, when companies find themselves with projects getting out of control, it is time to send in the cavalry. If we were to compare badly run projects to a combat zone where troops have been trapped for a while, then the only way to improve things is to parachute someone in with the know-how. That person having the complex mission of bringing everyone back to safety and re-plan it all, so that the troops can go back and put their flag on top of that hill they've been aiming for from the start.

This whole introduction might sound a bit too over the top and heroic, but for those of you who took part in meetings where people kept shouting at one another or circulating the blame around, as things went horribly wrong, you'd wish the whole project had been approached with military discipline from the start. So let's look at why projects go wrong and how good project management can save the day.

Why Projects Go Wrong?

Well, they go wrong for a variety of reasons, but they usually and universally fail for three main reasons.

Firstly, they fail because there is no professional project manager in charge. Secondly, they can also fail because there is a professional project manager in charge, but he is not really the kind of PM who can handle projects start to finish. Thirdly, they also fail because there is a professional project manager in charge, but he hasn't got the necessary skills or experience to deal with unforeseen changes, risks or issues.

Note that stopping projects or re-validating their scope after a major change means that projects have been handled in a controlled way, not that they have failed. They fail when things go out of control for an unreasonable period of time.

What Can Be Done About It?

Very well you say, but practically speaking, what are we supposed to do then? If your project is already live and going wrong, immediately identify in your network (in-house or externally), a project manager with a successful track record of delivering all kind of projects. Then do everything you can to at least have that person look at your project for a couple of days, to get an honest and expert feedback. If he can get access to all the stakeholders, it will take only few days for a good PM to identify the problem's root causes and recommend remedy actions.

Usually, if there was no professional project manager involved, the issues are most likely to have been caused by gaps in the project scope, planning, and/or governance. Indeed, it is often the case that the person put in charge of managing the project is more interested and knowledgeable in his area then in other areas of the project. This will lead that person to assume that anything he hands over to another team is taken care of and not his responsibility. And this is where it all goes wrong. A good project manager has overall accountability for all project areas. Hence if you are delivering an IT project, and Sam for example, an IT engineer, has been asked to manage the project, Sam will also be concerned about the end users, the contract, the costs, other systems and departments interfaces…hence having to work with its legal, procurement, employees representatives and may be HR colleagues, not to mention any 3rd party provider.

And what you'll very often notice is that Sam does a great job at planning his IT piece, but only puts a few lines down for other team's tasks. Furthermore, Sam is probably not having weekly calls with all teams' representatives, hence not having real time visibility of the tasks on a frequent basis, and only finding out too late when something is not ready or working.

That's why, it is strongly recommended to always appoint a professional and trained project manager, to lead projects which involve the coordination of activities amongst multiple departments and teams. Very often you'll hear people say they can't afford to pay for a project manager, as their project budget is already tight. But neither can they afford for their initial budget and timing being multiplied by 2, 5, 10, or even more in some instances, as things get out of control. Had they invested in a professional PM from day 1, they would have had a realistic plan and budget from the start, the PM having performed a thorough due diligence.

But most importantly, regardless of whether your PM is a professional or an appointed one, what really matters is that he is able to manage the project from start to finish. Indeed, in blue chip companies or on big programmes of change, project managers are only responsible for one or some areas, as all other areas are covered by other project managers. Hence they really only have accountability for some part of the project, not everything. Hence why, the more the PM has got exposure and accountability for everything, the better he gets, and the more likely he will earn his stripes, and be able one day to master the complex discipline of "project rescue".

Find out more…

For those of you who want to find out more about what makes great project managers, whether you are a project manager or working with them, feel free to read "The 50 Golden Rules of Project Management". This book, based on how the best project managers do it, looks to increase project success and decrease uncertainties. It is full of useful advice and real stories illustrating the "do's" and "don'ts" of running a successful project. It has already been adopted by professionals, governments, students and academics.

Vladimir Cordier is a Senior Project and Programme Manager. He specialises in delivering and rescuing IT, Outsourcing, Operations and Business Change projects for international organisations. Over the years he has developed a unique and successful project management approach based on 50 universal rules. French born and London based, he splits his time between running change initiatives, mentoring project managers and writing. He has over 15 years' experience in a wide variety of organisations.

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