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Every project manager has been, or will be in charge of a project that seems to take on a life of its own, and not in a good way. This is not the end of the world. “At risk” projects are common, and recovery is possible.

We would like project managers and executives to understand a few important things about failing projects, and what you can do to recover from them. So let’s kick this off with a bit of encouraging knowledge.

1. A Surprising Number of Projects Recover When Action is Taken

When a project first starts to spiral out of control, the gut feeling that most project managers encounter is one of desperation. It often feels like recovery is impossible, that there are no options for correction, and that things couldn’t possibly get worse.

But according to research by Project Management Solutions, this is not the reality of the situation. About a third of the projects that the average firm is involved in are “at risk of failing.” When organizations take action to prevent failure, they are actually successful 74 percent of the time. That’s right, most “at risk” projects actually end up recovering, provided you actually take steps to solve the problem.
 

Furthermore, project interventions are very common. Three quarters of firms have had to intervene in a project over the past three years.
 

2. Project Managers Are One of the Most Important Variables
 

While a nearly infinite number of factors play a part in the success or failure of a project, the project manager is one of the most important, for several reasons:

  • The project manager is typically responsible for deciding which actions to embark on in order to recover the project
  • The project manager has the most influence over deciding which root causes to address, and how
  • Survey results state without reservation that project managers played a crucial role in the recovery of failing projects
     

Ninety-two percent of firms surveyed said that the project manager was either very important or important to a successful recovery.
 

3. The Best Guard Against Project Failure is a Standardized Project Management Methodology
 

The results of the research by PM Solutions found that companies who employed a standardized project management methodology had half as many project failures as those who didn’t. Unfortunately, many businesses were not prepared:
 

  • Thirty percent of small firms had no project management methodology, while only 18 percent of large firms were in the same boat.
  • Firms with no methodology saw a 21 percent failure rate.
  • Firms with methodology saw only a 9 percent failure rate.

While it isn’t the be all end all of standardization, taking advantage of simple, collaborative project management software can play a very important part in this.

 

4. Projects Become At Risk for Five Main Reasons

Smart project managers will plan to avoid these five pitfalls, and will start recovery by asking where these might have happened:

  1. Project Requirements were not clearly defined, not prioritized, imprecise, contradictory, or not agreed upon.
  2. Resources were not available, tied up in conflicts, or they weren’t properly planned for.
  3. Schedules were unrealistic.
  4. Plans were based on incomplete data, bad estimates, and suffered from insufficient detail.
  5. Risks were assumed, not measured, or were never identified to begin with.

5. These Five Actions Are Most Common In Successful Recovery

The research also suggests that the following five items are the ones that are most commonly applied when projects recover successfully. While it’s usually executives who decide whether or not to intervene, it is almost always up to the project manager to decide how to move forward, so keep these in mind.

  1. Improve communication – Communication breakdowns are a huge problem in project management.
  2. Redefine the project – By changing the scope of the project or finding new financial justifications for it, projects can be altered to serve different purposes.
  3. Changing resources – By adding resources, projects that are starving for raw talent and materials can flourish where they will otherwise fail. In other circumstances, projects may have been on their way to failure because too many resources had been allocated when simple solutions are a better fit.
  4. Addressing technical concerns – This comes down to complex problem solving and requires in depth analysis to pull off correctly.
  5. Shifting talent – In some cases, it may be necessary to replace the project manager or bring in a consultant for this particular project.
     

It’s worth pointing out that firms with no standardized methodology were more likely to replace their project manager, so this should usually be seen as a last resort.

6. Recovery Occurs in Six Steps

According to Dr. Harold Kerzner, the Senior Executive Director for Project Management at the International Institute for Learning, project recovery is a six step process:

  1. Understanding – This step is a review of the project, it’s history, purpose, goals, assumptions, the team, and its validity.
  2. Audit – This is a critical look at the project and why it’s failing. During this step, you look for failure points, prioritize goals, facilitate team communication about issues (without finger pointing), address incentives, and verify that the company, stakeholders, clients, etc. are still vested in the project.
  3. Tradeoffs – After a project has become “at risk,” it’s unlikely that full objectives can still be met without some tradeoffs. This is often addressed with the help of the “triple constraint” model. When a project is first conceived, time, cost, and scope are the primary constraints, while reputation, quality, and value are the tradeoffs addressed. When you revaluate a project, this gets turned on its head. Reputation, quality, and value become the primary constraints, while time, cost, and scope become the tradeoffs.
  4. Negotiation – The negotiation process is about reaching an agreement on where tradeoffs should be made and getting buy-in, focusing on realistic solutions.
  5. Restart – Some of the keys to a successful restart include: team understanding of the negotiations, knowledge from past mistakes, knowledge of the updated plan, engagement of stakeholders, and knowledge of updated member roles and responsibilities.
  6. Execution – To ensure that recovery goes on track, some of the must-haves include: periodic health checks, positive morale, effective communication, no unnecessary stakeholder intervention, managed expectations, no team politics, well defined changes in scope, and repeated learning from previous mistakes.

There is a Road Forward

No matter what goes wrong, there are always lessons to be learned, and there is always a way to move forward. I urge you to not only memorize these six takeaways, but internalize them. Understand how and why projects spiral out of control, why they recover, and most importantly, the learning process itself.

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