How to Turn a Troubled Project Around
“Tell me about a time when you contemplated faking your death.”
This really should be a standard interview question for aspiring Project Managers. Weary, beleaguered, and just on the edge of sanity, there comes a moment in every PM’s life when he or she experiences a desperate impulse to escape a troubled project. If a PM says otherwise, they’re lying.
Exacerbating the shame of experienced PMs everywhere, “best practice” focuses almost exclusively on the prevention of project-killers. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—a wonderful adage that is absolutely true…until it isn’t. Bottom line: sometimes s*** hits the fan. And when it does, an experienced PM is ready with the Windex.
Step 1: Perform Triage
When your dog poops on the carpet, do you reach for paper towels or a pooper-scooper? For those who aren’t dog owners, the answer is, “Neither. First, you assess the damage.” Generally, when major risks are realized on a project, those need to be addressed first. If a major vendor gets bought out or an executive sponsor quits, keep a calm head and assess the impact. Realize that it is natural for some projects to get killed, and it isn’t always the fault of the PM or the project team. Hold another “risk and issues” session with the team to make sure your risk and issues log really reflects the current state of the union.
Step 2: Talk to Everyone
Your impulse will be to stop communicating with the team while you and executive leadership work things out. Don’t. The team can always sense when something is wrong, and if you keep them in the dark it will be hard for them to trust you later. Even if you can’t divulge all the details, acknowledge the DEFCON level and let the team know you have options for moving forward. Keep your ear to the ground, remembering that situational awareness is your most powerful ally. A great solution depends on great understanding of the problem, and executive management will rest easier knowing their PM isn’t burying their head in the sand.
Step 3: Share Your “In the Meantime” Plan
If you don’t specifically address what the team should be doing while things are up in the air, they will make assumptions…usually to the project’s detriment. Work with the sponsor to decide whether the team should proceed as usual or hold off on working and purchasing.
Step 4: Watch Your Language!
A disillusioned project team can turn a campfire into an inferno if you’re not careful. Pay attention to the tone—not just the content—of what your team is saying in meetings and in email. Here are some phrases to watch for:
“There’s absolutely no way that…”
“The people upstairs don’t understand that…”
If necessary, institute a project reboot. Give the team alternative phrases to use and hold yourself—and the team—accountable to eliminating negative language when possible. (Need ideas? Here’s a great resource. Non-affiliate link.)
Step 5: Put the Fish on the Table
I had an old boss who carried a stuffed (plush) trout to every meeting. Anytime he sensed that the team needed to acknowledge an unpleasant fact, he’s throw the trout in the air and say: “Okay, let’s put the fish on the table.” This was his signal to the team that it was okay to share what wasn’t working, or what was holding the team back. Someone might say, “I’m not sure we can meet this timeline without more money,” or “The project is almost done but our quality results stink.” Once the fish was on the table, the team could work together to determine root causes and solutions. Eventually, anyone on the team felt comfortable “throwing the fish” when things weren’t going according to plan.
How well is your organization putting the fish on the table?