Projects in Crisis: Fire-Jumper Turnaround Plan

Your project is in grave trouble and its deliverables are behind schedule. The current project team is stressed, client anxiety is high, team morale is low, key executive sponsors are on the hot seat and your senior management is fuming. You, as a Program Manager, are brought in to take over the project and turn it around. Unlike starting a project where you have your standard 30-60-90 day plan, here you have a 3-6-9 day plan to implement a get-to-green blueprint. What do you do? Well, before just jumping into the deep end and running the risk of being pulled under by other drowning members, consider the following reasons why projects generally run into trouble:

• Unclear requirements/scope
• Poor planning
• Lack of formal project management processes
• Unclear roles of team members including that of the project manager
• Inadequate communication
• Inexperienced team members

My step step-by-step approach may be useful. Before your start: In your mind’s eye, think of an old round analog clock. Picture twelve-o-clock, three-o-clock, six-o-clock, etc – now were going to work our way around the clock; one to twelve.
1. The reason that you have been called upon to rescue the project is because you have handled projects like this in the past therefore, have the abilities and knowledge required to fix this problem. One-o-clock, don’t panic, you have the skills to do this. Self-confidence and a sense of calm is important. Get your hands on all the relevant project documentation (scope, planning, charter, specifications, etc.) and read it.
2. Now you have “some” background, next you need to have your communication plan for letting stakeholders understand your expectations from the outset. Make it clear to all parties concerned that you will need time to familiarize yourself with the project, but let them know what the steps are you’ll use to quickly right the ship and just how quickly you’ll move everyone through the process. This twelve step process is what you share so to speak. A solid “Purpose, Process, Pay-off statement works well here – “what I’m here to do is this, I’m going to use these steps to do it and if you support me, you’ll get this in return”
3. Who do you talk to first? YOUR sales colleagues – they’ll have the insight and they’ll have anxiety as well. Whenever there’s an issue at an account, it’s possibly threatening their livelihood. They want to know and need to know that you’re their partner. Ask them about the situation and lots of questions; don’t argue – just probe.
4. Next, talk to your program team – just touch the top people. Right now we’re just trying to define the problem, not solve it.
5. It’s now 5:00. Now go interview the CLIENT stake holders and their top program lieutenants. Their reaction will be similar to that of our sales team. They’ll have insight as well as anxiety. They want to know and need to know that you’re their partner. Ask them about the situation and lots of questions; don’t argue – just probe.
6. You are now half way through your 3-6-9 day plan. You’ve held a series of individual meetings/conference calls with the main stakeholders, teams and members to introduce yourself and pick their brains. Among all the questions you’ve asked, you probably can now see how you’d answer the following questions yourself:

o What is the problem?
o Why is the project out of control?
o What should be done to get it back on track?
o How can individual people or teams with whom you are working help in rescuing the project?

7. A. Now hold a more formal, cross functional meeting with the core project teams including the client, your team and (always) a sales representative. Focus on going through the project by comparing:
o Initial scope vs current + reason for change in scope (if any)
o Initial schedule vs current schedule + reasons for schedule issues
o Current state of deliverables + initial estimation for completion
o Initial budget vs money spent so far + reasons, if applicable, for budget overrun
B. This meeting will help you drive consensus around 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.
8. Now work with your team and other stakeholders to come up with a new plan for the project. Note that the project might be in crisis because of poorly defined scope, requirements or objectives. Revisiting the planning process will help in bringing the project back on track and identify issues that were subsequent to improper planning or execution.
9. It is nine-o-clock now, so you’re on day six of your nine-day plan. At this point, you can now hold a damage assessment meeting with the main stakeholders to report your findings and update them on your teams steps for getting to green
10. Depending on the size and complexity of your project, the new planning document might include new or altered sections such as:

o Project management approval page
o Executive summary
o Project charter
o Objectives
o Project assumptions
o Project risks
o Project scope
o Deliverables
o Stakeholders
o Project organization
o Work breakdown structure
o Network diagram
o Gantt chart
o Resources
o Costs
o Procedures
o Lessons learned so far
o Project directory

11. Get your new planning validated by all the main stakeholders, and start managing your project to completion.
12. It’s now twelve-o-clock – Note that creating such a new planning document is an iterative process, and for complex, off the rail projects or programs, you will need to run with your standard Plan-Do-Check-Act model making sure your program is coming back up to green as planned. Make sure that you enforce stricter monitoring and reporting procedures so you increase your chances of identifying issues earlier. Communicate, communicate, communicate!! Others will tell you when you can slow down the flow: It’s a great indicator of trust and success.