Turning Around A Failing Project in 5 Steps

Project managers have the responsibility of completing projects on time and on budget. Most of the time they don’t even have the authority to specify their team members or size.  Responsibility without authority is the definition of stress. Is it possible that’s why you’re reading this right now?

So, if you’re finding yourself in a stressful situation with a project, it’s time to take control of it. Take a few deep yoga breaths and follow some steps to get yourself, your team, and your project back on track.

First, answer this question: How Big is the Project?

If your project is enormous, like rebuilding the Panama Canal, or executing a mission to Mars, I would suggest reading this good advice from the PMI on recovering troubled projects. This is advice designed to rescue huge disasters from the flames of Dante.  And it will work every time if properly executed.  It’s just not an easy feat.

For most of us, though, the projects that are more normal-sized and the PMI’s advice is probably overkill… so keep reading.

Step 1: Get Real

Begin by taking stock of the real progress of the project to date.  How many hours have been spent? Are you even tracking this? If not, you need to start. How many were you budgeted for? If you don’t have a budget, it’s time to create one.  What percentage of the work has been completed?  If you’ve spent 50% of the hours and done 10% of the work, this rate of progress is unlikely to improve just by yelling at people.  If you don’t have the right tools in place, like project time tracking, to get an understanding of project status, get the tools in place.

Take stock of the resources being applied to the project.  Are you missing some key skills?  Is that why things are slow?  Were resources promised but not delivered to the project?

Take stock of the project definition.  Is the customer or executive who wants this done clearly in the same headspace as the people running the project?  Is there a signed requirements list?  Is it reasonable?  Is there a delivery deadline that is feasible at this point?  This may need to be renegotiated before you go any further or the project will end up as a double fail.

Step 2: Get a New Agreement

Get all parties to agree to a new set of requirements and a new project timeline.  There’s little point in continuing to work on a failing project in the absence of getting this figured out. For any project to run smoothly, everyone needs to be on the same page.

Step 3: Communicate

Everyone involved should be receiving frequent project status reports with alerts as to when things are going well or poorly on any of the requirements or timeline milestones. Having regular checkpoints helps keep everyone on the team accountable for their work and can stop a catastrophe from happening.

Step 4: Stop Playing the Blame Game

If you have the right resources (mostly people), a reasonable timeline, reasonable project requirements, and a meeting of the mind with all stakeholders as to what all these things should be, you should be in great shape.  Whining at each other helps nothing.  Getting true agreement about facts and prospects for fixing things is very valuable when done without a lot of negative emotion.

Step 5: Get’er Done.

Now that everyone is on the same page you can finish the project and breathe easier.  And you’ll be the winner for turning it around.


Is your project going over-budget? Journyx CEO Curt Finch has some advice to help you: Watch his video What to Do When Your Project Goes Over Budget 

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