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Project Recovery: 4 Steps to Save a Project Gone Wrong

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.

It happens to the best of us… The reality is that no project has ever gone 100% to-plan! Despite sound strategizing of project parameters, goals, objectives, deadlines, and stakeholder participation, at some point, your project will run into roadblocks. It doesn’t help that a lot more goes into project management and systems delivery than average day-to-day tasks. Changes in organizational, political, financial, or strategic goals during a project present many points where it can potentially stall or fail. The mantra in all project work is “’s not how you begin a project, it’s how you end it that makes the difference between success and failure”.  Because of this, you need a PMO that understands the best steps to take towards recovering a project and getting it back on track to success!

With or without a PMO to support your project, how do you recover something that’s rapidly going off the rails? Whether you’ve caught it in the early issue-stages or once it’s blown up and you’re unsure of how to course-correct - there’s still hope. At this point, your project managers' key role is to stay calm amidst the panic and keep your team together while you set things straight.

There are the four main steps you’ll want to take if your project goes askew.


1. Pause the project & resources

When major problems arise in a project, you have a very difficult decision to make. You can proceed one of two ways; either you continue utilizing resources and energy on a project hoping it will self-correct, or you halt all resources until you’ve set things straight.

A natural reaction when discovering discrepancies is to throw money at problems and hope for a quick fix. I’m here to tell you that’s not the best approach. To begin, minimize any resource spend you can while analyzing the root cause of the problem and realigning the work plans once understood. This will allow you more spend once your team is back in action. Depending on the nature of your project, you might not be able to halt resources entirely. The balance is always in considering where you might be able to keep resources that are not in the critical problem path while you’re performing the project audit.

Once you’ve determined the most appropriate course of action, you'll need to inform your team, leadership, and most importantly, the client that you’re pausing to audit. Try to gain agreement that this is the best course of action and ensure the client’s confidence that it will be corrected. To reduce confusion and panic, maintain open communication throughout the following three steps.


2. identify roadblocks & challenges

With resource spend at a minimum, it’s time to understand where your project went wrong. Consider the following areas. What challenges or roadblocks did you face in each?

  • Roles and responsibilities – Naturally, roles and responsibilities shift over the course of a project, but issues might arise if your team’s roles aren’t laid out properly from the start. Take time to identify and verify that each role and its associated deliverables still align to project priorities and deadlines.
  • Team cohesiveness/fit/communication - Agreeing on mutual expectations is key to a positive, open relationship with your team. It’s easy for misunderstandings and conflicts to arise without the right expectations set from the project’s start. Spend some time really understanding team dynamics. Are there any frustrations around team member fit, communication, or collaboration that may have been missed in the day-to-day work?
  • Communication/expectations between your PMO and the client– How involved in the day-to-day project work is the customer or client? A healthy balance of communication and involvement is key to this relationship. Is the customer too involved? Or, on the flip side, are they not involved enough?
  • Work environment complications – A positive, distraction-free work environment can change the game for those in the fast-paced project management world. Especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, employee well-being and productivity are at risk. Where’s your team conducting most of their work? Is everyone working from home, or are office spaces provided? Make sure you’re constantly checking in on them to make sure they aren’t facing difficulties that might affect their work.
  • Resource allocation – Not having the right amount of resources allocated can turn the “possible'' into the “impossible” very quickly. Reaffirm that the project's stakeholders understand and buy into the correct number of resources for your team to be successful. Evaluate budget, timelines, and any other resources and components that may impact the project.
  • Is there anything else?Always try to think out of the box to identify any other factors that may affect the project you need to address.


3. Pinpoint solutions to each problem

Admit mistakes and admit them fast – don’t dwell on what’s gone wrong! Now that you’ve reflected and audited the project, it’s time to identify solutions. Take the challenges you came up with in the last step and brainstorm options to move the project forward.

Consider any additional resources you’ll need. Do you need more money, time, team collaboration, open communication, or workspaces for your team to do their jobs well? Consider resources you no longer need or can rework in other areas that need it more. Have you discovered that the project priorities, roles, responsibilities, or tasks have shifted over the course of the project? Now is the time to rework timelines, resources, and money to ensure you’re aligned with the project priorities. And, finally, consider those major hurdles that might take an outside party or consulting partner to solve. Sometimes, bringing in extra help can provide an added layer of expertise to plan, implement, and deliver the project on-time and on-budget.


4. refocus goals, objectives & deadlines - and then, resume!

Congratulations, you’ve reached the last step in your project recovery journey! Before restarting the project, make sure your stakeholders, leadership, and team are all completely aligned and agreed to the new goals.

  • Refocus team goals – By now, you’ve probably realized that your team doesn’t have all the answers. Try to identify personal improvement areas for your team to work on. This will foster your team’s confidence in the organization’s willingness to fill any gaps in knowledge. You’ll also want to make sure each role is properly aligned with tasks and responsibilities to meet refocused project objectives.
  • Refocus project goals – Do you need more time to complete the project or different deadlines? Have roles been reassigned, added, or removed from the project? What are the new expectations from the client? How involved will the client be moving forward?

At this point, as you resume the project, you need to put the changes you made during course-correction into your everyday management process. Things will undoubtedly go wrong again, and the faster you recognize and follow these steps, the less impact it will have in the future - which means more success for your team!

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