Rescuing Troubled Projects 2
In our first installment, I discussed some of the basics of troubled projects. I also recommended the
first step you should take when you are assigned to a troubled project. If you have not read part one, you can read it here.
Once you have stopped or slowed the digging and bleeding. What’s next?
The mnemonic F.I.R.S.T. will help you remember the basic issues that you need to address at the beginning. I find these guidelines are helpful in restoring order.
We already discussed the First Law of Holes. But, it is worth repeating! Try and stop the hole from getting deeper!
All PMs should know about Inheritance. We usually inherit a project that we didn’t have any input to. However, no matter how bad the situation (or how little you had to do with it), it is your fault from the moment you arrive. Sometimes it is your problem before you arrive.
At one location, the executive actually announced that I would be joining the account by sending a note saying that a Troubled Project Manager was coming. I explained that where you put the emphasis is significant. I am a troubled-project manager, NOT a troubled project manager.
When you come into a troubled project, you must exude confidence to the customer and the team. Remember, if you don’t act confident, then nobody will believe you. You should radiate calm, even if everyone else is panicking.
If you want to regain the customer’s confidence, then you must do a lot of relationship building. Typically, troubled projects have poor communications (we will discuss this in a later installment). Dealing with bad communication is just another aspect of project inheritance.
This leads us to Reducing Scope. Yes, I know, clients don’t want to hear scope reduction when they have lost confidence. However, selling the successful delivery of a meaningful piece is far better than just deepening the hole. Since you will usually not be able to get all the resources that you ask for, make sure that you get enough to do the job. One important note here! When you get the scope reduced, you had better deliver! You won’t get another chance.
Next, perform a Sanity Check. Most of the time, when I arrived at these kinds of projects, insanity was in charge. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. To get a better result, you have to change the behavior. Make sure what your team is doing makes sense before letting them continue.
I took over as the PM for a troubled project that had been unsuccessfully stumbling along for years. As part of the network hosting effort, they introduced a new security device rather than using their own established methods. Getting this device to work had caused months of delay. As part of my sanity check, I asked the primary network engineer what he had to do to set up the device. It turned out that the new device required hours (and sometimes days) to set up and was time consuming to maintain. The engineer then showed me that it took just minutes using their current method to achieve the same result. We dropped this use of the new device, and the project went forward to a successful delivery..
Finally, we must talk about Teams. A good, properly motivated team can accomplish amazing things. Early on you must determine whether your team has what it takes to deliver. If you determine the team can’t cut it, then you must quickly take the (sometimes difficult) actions to get your team in shape.
You may have to eliminate trouble-makers. You may need to hold training sessions. You might need to bring in some trusted personnel to supplement the team. Of course, it might simply mean showing some concern for the team members for the first time on the project.
Killer projects often have no end of issues to deal with. So, the PM needs to come up with innovative approaches to get the project under control, to get up to speed, to gain the client’s confidence, and to reinvigorate the team.
The Innovation Network defines innovation as “People Creating Value by Implementing New Ideas”.
I think this concept of creating value is fundamental to innovation. For example, suppose you have an idea to replace all the round car tires with square tires. Certainly, this is a new idea, but is it innovative? No, it is not, because there is no value in having square tires.
Therefore, it is not sufficient to come up with something new or different. The real goal is to spark ideas that add value in new ways, use existing methods to new benefit, or modify existing processes to give better results.
This is the way you need to think when you are on a troubled project. Actually, PMs innovate all of the time, they just don’t think about it as innovation.
I was once told by a PM that she was worried about having to constantly cut corners due to lack of resources and overload. She wanted to make sure that she was cutting the right corners. This is really the crux of the problem. This is where innovation is critical in our daily PM lives and on killer projects.
Let’s talk about some of the innovative techniques that have worked for me.
I had an uncle who taught me about using another person’s aura to your advantage. My uncle started a number of businesses using this innovative approach:
He would read a book on the subject, print a business card, and hold a seminar with himself as an expert. And, he would always partner initially with an acknowledged expert. This covered my uncle in the aura of the acknowledged expert.
I have used this technique very effectively on killer projects. Generally, there is somebody on your team that the client trusts. Most often this is a Business Analyst (BA) or a technical Subject Matter Expert (SME). Until you have proven yourself to the client, always take this person along. Of course, you must take care to prepare the person you take. Make sure that the trusted person will give the right message. Never go alone or unprepared!
In fact, whether you have now gained the clients trust or not, always send a trusted-person with team members that the client does not know or trust.
This worked so well at one account that, after a while, the client would simply listen to our User Acceptance presentation and then sign off saying, “We know you will do it right.”
Next time I will discuss methods for working with your team.
See you then.