“It always seems impossible until it is done” – Nelson Mandela
I have been lucky for the number of occasions where I got involved into a derailed project and was asked to put it back on track. Hindsight there is actually no better learning opportunity for the organization, team and people involved in the recovery of a troubled project. When it goes wrong, it can really go wrong fast and oftentimes with severe impact. But the learnings can be of value for a lifetime, when one is receptive to it. In this post I want to focus more on ‘what to do when a project has derailed’ and less on the drivers that caused it. So what do you do? What are the key steps to recovery?
- Sit down and listen: When you have been tasked to fix the project, the first thing you want to do is to meet with people who represent different internal and external stakeholder groups. Seek to understand first, before you present anything to anybody, because your intention is to come with accurate statements at the right time. Gather valuable input for a thorough impact analysis that clarifies the root cause of the derailment. Keep digging in case of conflicting information up to the point where the facts speak for themselves. Be audacious in asking for information when you believe its available, but appears to be inaccessible. Escalate if you need to
- Structure your findings: Document your findings in such a way that it can be easily shared with stakeholders upon request, and retrieved for presentations. Create a separate ‘living document’ to capture lessons-learned. What has worked for me in the past, is to structure the findings by business process, technology and stakeholder or stakeholder group. These are three key dimensions of the solution the project is about to deliver, and people can easily relate to when you discuss your findings
- Build a coalition of positive advocates: While you are making your rounds to gather information, you’ll find out who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. At a certain point in time you need to rally the troops to re-start the project and you can only do that when you have build a coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome. The key purpose of the coalition is to drive change throughout the lifecycle of the project, and make sure that key stakeholders remain aligned and committed. Especially at the start when things can be messy and ambiguous, you need leadership support to keep things moving forward, make small adjustments and celebrate quick wins
- Present options to move forward: When you have got your facts straight, completed the root cause analysis, defined options and a recommendation, developed a plan, and got buy in from the key stakeholders, it is time for an official presentation of your findings and plan to move forward. The presentation is the first milestone of recovery and start of a new begin. That moment in time must be celebrated and marked as the turn-around point. The presentation is more of a formal approval of the new approach, as you have already obtained your approvals ahead of time through a number of preliminary meetings with the Executives. Make sure that the key messages are shared with all project stakeholders with the right level of detail
- Rebuild the team: Re start the project with the right people and make use of the momentum to assess the integrity and capability of the project team. Make the necessary changes as required. This applies to internal and external resources. Look further than the required knowledge, experience and skills. Think about personality, leadership style, motivational aspects and willpower. Establish a team with leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make it happen. Aim for a world-class team that has the guts, courage and bravery to deliver with relentless effort based on mutual trust and faith that the job can be done
There is a reason why projects derail and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as the organization, team and people are willing to learn, change and do it different and better the next time. When they think about new strategies and plans, change the approach and their behaviour, they’ll finally achieve the intended vision and goals of the project. When that happens it is time to celebrate the outcome and learnings.
Bas de Baat
Program Manager Enterprise Applications, PMP©