Numerous case studies have demonstrated that if projects start to experience issues it happens towards the end of the project life-cycle – close to delivery. Obviously this is the worst possible timing for the project to go off track – everyone are expecting outcomes and they are getting problems instead. Sometimes it is decided that the best way to resolve issues is to bring a new PM that will reorganize and lead the project in a more efficient way. Overtaking a project is probably one of the most difficult ways of getting a project assigned. Often you are stepping into a half-baked solution, being perceived as an intruder that is going to turn the world upside down, sometimes not trusted and not welcomed. However I like to look at failing projects as like a rare opportunity, that can bring a lot of benefits to you and the organization.

 Why overtaking a failing project can be beneficial?

  • It’s an opportunity for the organization to learn on mistakes. Document the learning’s and share with key people
  • Quick (sometimes extreme) learning curve. When you overtake a project to save it usually quite few things are already going wrong. In most of the cases you will have little time and resources to bring it back on track  – challenging but often doable.
  • Gives you exposure. If you overtake “a sinking ship” you are perceived almost as James Bond who is going to save the world from its inevitable dramatic end. You have a chance to create a good impression that will be your capital for future
  • Quite often you are in position to demand additional resources, money, time as bringing in a new PM often is being perceived as a new opening for the project. This is not always the case even for newly starting projects where often budgets are cut and timeline squeezed from the very beginning.

First steps after overtaking the project

  • Stop (if possible) and evaluate. Verify the current state of the project. Understand at what stage the project is, what has been delivered, what’s still pending. Understand the products, their status, budget and timeline. If the previous PM is still available – take the handover.
  • Analyze existing documentation
  • Talk with key stakeholders. That goes for both project team and business –  understand who are you dealing with. Create a stakeholder matrix, where you will understand who has the biggest interest in the project, who’s powerful and who you just need to keep informed.
  • Understand key issues and risks. Not just the ones noted in existing RAID log – but also those that will surface from the conversations with stakeholders.
  • Provide a recommendation whether the project should be continued. This might be a very difficult task to do but sometimes recommending discontinuation of the project might be the best what you can do.
  • If you think the project should continue, provide a recovery plan. Set out, document and communicate your proposed way of delivering (including approach, timeline, budget, resourcing and risks and issues).

Do’s and don’ts

  • Don’t play the blame game. Do not discredit previous PM, don’t blame people who are not with the company anymore. Cut out the past and move on.
  • Respect what has been delivered, done so far but be critical about it.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “NO”. When taking over a project you might be pushed into some already made decisions and way of doing things. Don’t continue previous approaches, governance etc. if you fundamentally disagree with them, but where possible don’t change routines that can give the team at least a minimum of stability.
  • Build trust and relationships with the project team and stakeholders. Recognize that the Team might be in a challenging situation but clearly set your expectation on how you want to run the project.

To overtake a project you need to have a thick skin and quite a few years of experience under your belt. You will be blamed for decisions that were not yours, you will have to defend things that you disagree with and haven’t been done under your jurisdiction, you will have to convince people to let go things that have been already agreed and approved and get them to go a different path. You will feel frustrated, angry and powerless at times, but if you will succeed  this  project will be your biggest achievement and learning that’s highly likely to boost your career and experience to the next level.

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