Transformation Excellence

To the (project) rescue… – who you gonna call?

Thought Leadership

A Standish CHAOS Chronicles report states that only 52% of completed projects actually deliver on their proposed functionality. The same study, based on more than 13,000 completed projects, states that successful projects made up “just over a third or 34 percent of all projects” – meaning, the other two-thirds fail. Another report on 9,236 information technology (IT) projects showed that project success rates have fallen to a startlingly low 28 percent (The Standish Group).

So, what does it take to succeed and be in the top third? Course correcting a failing project…

Whether a troubled project ultimately succeeds or fails depends on the effectiveness of the actions taken to recover the project. Before these actions can be taken, however, organisations need to be able to identify and openly and honestly admit to any key problems that exist, and then prepare to apply appropriate corrective measures to get the project back on track. Only by identifying and admitting what’s broken can things be properly fixed.

How do you define success? What does great actually look like?

In today’s definition, success occurs when the planned business value of a project is achieved within initially defined timelines and budgets, and the customer receives the desired value from the project’s successful execution. To determine – ideally at an early stage – if a project is about to fail or runs the risk of running off the rails, it’s important to understand if the project sits outside of pre-determined tolerances initially defined to measure the project’s success.

So, what are the reasons of failure?

Projects can be endangered due to requirements (unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise), resources (lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning), schedules (too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic), planning (based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates), and risks (unidentified or assumed, not managed).

To successfully get a failing project(s) back on track, it’s important to apply a tried and tested methodology and some simple yet effective key steps that will steer you and your organisation back on the road to success. Following this five step approach will restore your process to its earlier performance level, stabilise it, measure its effectiveness, and subsequently define recommended enhancements to match your organisational culture and goals.

Step 1: Evaluate what’s going on

The engagement begins with an assessment of your current process which concludes with a Project Management Assessment Report. In this first step, you are attempting to identify and agree on a number of critical elements that will be included in the project charter. For example, you need to: define the mission with the sponsor, understand the project history and sensitivities, establish initial project team contact, determine the assessment approach, and complete the charter and obtain approval.

Step 2: Figure out why your project is failing by developing the assessment plan

Any assessment must begin with a review of the existing project documentation. This information is the starting point, helping to provide insight, perspective and understanding as to why the project is experiencing difficulties. By using the project organisation chart, you can identify the individuals who must be interviewed. The final action in this step is to develop a day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule of the assessment process. Having such an agenda makes it very clear to all that time is of the essence and that certain people need to be available at specific times to drive corrective actions, or provide mission critical input.

Step 3: Initiating war room meetings & pressing the reset-button

The next step sees the organisation ready to execute the assessment plan, which has three main areas of focus: determining the true current status of the project, identifying major threats, opportunities and problems for the project moving forward, and establishing an extended team to drive and execute the recovery effort.

Step 4: Developing the recovery plan

The focus of this step is on developing a recovery project plan and assembling an extended team to accomplish the work that needs doing. In many ways, by assembling a team focused on the tasks at hand, and re-base lining, the schedule cannot slip again. This makes developing an achievable plan of paramount importance – and more realisable.

The practice of micromanagement plays a very important role in troubled project recovery. Avoided by most project managers as a discredited form of management, the practice of micromanagement in this environment is the cornerstone upon which success will be built. This approach results in great detail. Getting this aspect of the job done is a project in itself!

Step 5: Conducting the recovery

In recovery, you must begin with the end in mind. The goal here is clearly to ensure that the endangered project is no longer in recovery. It’s on solid footing with a well-defined project control and management system, an achievable plan and a team that can get the job done.

When the project has been restored to a workable condition and the transition to the project team has been completed, an exit review with the project team and key stakeholders is conducted, ensuring a smooth and clear handover. With a detailed ‘lessons learned’ session, hopefully, past mistakes can be learned from and won’t become sources of future nightmares!

Always plan for a possible rescue mission – just in case…but hope it ends up being that life vest you never get to use

Overall, rescue activities within a project can be a critical part in a project lifecycle. It’s important to have extensive experience in successfully and rapidly bringing failing projects and programmes under control. Having a proven approach to assessing project and programme health and establishing an accurate plan and schedule not only saves failing projects and programmes, but provides team members and project leaders with a roadmap of how to properly plan and execute projects and programmes the next time around.