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Rescuing Projects in Crisis: Project Turnaround Pointers

~ By Manjeet Singh

Tile of crisis headlines

A project is in serious trouble having overrun its budget, and deliveries are far behind schedule. The previous project manager has been fired, team morale is low, sponsors are hopping mad and senior management is fuming. You are brought in to take over the project and turn it around. What should you do? Well, before getting into the thick of action, consider the following reasons why projects generally run into trouble:

  • Insufficient commitment from project sponsors
  • Unclear requirements/scope
  • Inexperienced team members
  • Poor planning
  • Lack of formal project management processes
  • Cultural issues
  • Unclear roles of team members including that of the project manager
  • Inadequate communication

The following step-by-step approach to get your project back on track may be useful:

  1. The reason that you have been called upon to rescue the project is probably because you have handled such a project in the past, and therefore have the abilities and knowledge required to rescue the project. However, you should set stakeholder expectations from the outset; make it clear to all parties concerned that you will need time to familiarise yourself with the project.
  2. Get your hands on all the relevant project documentation (scope, planning, charter, specifications, etc.) and read it. In parallel, hold a series of individual meetings/conference calls with the main stakeholders/teams members to introduce yourself, and pick their brains. Among others, specifically ask:
    • Why is the project out of control?
    • What should be done to get it back on track?
    • How can the person with whom you are talking help in rescuing the project?
  3. Hold a formal meeting with the core project team. Focus on getting to know the team, and introducing yourself in the beginning of the meeting. Go through the project by comparing: Initial scope v/s current + reason for change in scope (if any).
    • Initial schedule v/s current schedule + reasons for schedule issues
    • Initial budget v/s money spend so far + reasons for budget overrun
    • Current state of deliverables + initial estimation for completing them
  4. Such a meeting will help you identify the root causes of the project's problems. You have finished the first phase of damage assessment. Write a damage assessment report using the points above.
  5. At this point, depending on your project, you can hold a damage assessment meeting with the main stakeholders to report your findings.
  6. Now work with your team and other stakeholders to come up with a new planning for the project. Note that the project might be in crisis because of poorly defined scope, requirement or objectives. Going through a planning process will help in bringing back on track the project and identify issues that were obvious because no proper planning had been done in the first place.
  7. Depending on the size and complexity of your project, the new planning document can include sections such as:
    • Project management approval page
    • Executive summary
    • Project charter
    • Objectives
    • Project assumptions
    • Project risks
    • Project scope
    • Deliverables
    • Stakeholders
    • Project organisation
    • Work breakdown structure
    • Network diagram
    • Gantt chart
    • Resources
    • Costs
    • Procedures
    • Lessons learned so far
    • Project directory
  8. Note that creating such a new planning document is an iterative process, and for complex large projects, you will need to allocate time for this.
  9. Get your new planning validated by all the main stakeholders, and start managing your project to completion. Make sure that you enforce stricter monitoring and reporting procedures so you increase your chances of identifying issues earlier.

Conclusion: rescuing a project is sometimes like starting a new one - you have to assess the extent of the damage, review all aspects of the project, produce a new project plan and get it approved and then bring the project to completion using tight control and monitoring techniques.


Manjeet Singh has 17 years of experience acquired in a wide variety of industries with a focus on project management and operations in the High-Tech field. He offers project management consulting services to companies in Europe, the US and Asia.

Manjeet has an Executive MBA from the HEC Management School, and is the author of ProjectMind's Quick Guide to Project Management (PDF). He can be contacted at: msingh@projectminds.com


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