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What to Do When Your Project Gets Ugly

Max earned his project management professional (PMP) certification in 2013. He holds an MA in communication from U of I.

There is no worse feeling as a project manager than the moment you realize your project is rife with problems and failure is unavoidable. That feeling only gets worse when you have to explain these problems to stakeholders, and potentially senior-level executives.

Whether the problems you're running into were avoidable or not, it's important to keep your composure and remember that all projects run into challenges. The most important action you can take at that point is to have a thorough understanding of the problem, formulate a solution, engage key stakeholders, and drive everyone toward a solution. This article explores each of those steps in-depth to help you handle a failing project.

There are an infinite number of reasons a project could start going down the tubes.

There are an infinite number of reasons a project could start going down the tubes.

Understand the Problem

The minute you realize the project is headed for a crash course, the first step is to make sure you understand not just all of the problems plaguing your project, but the sources of those problems. As a project manager, you should have a high-level understanding of the problems that are bringing your project down. However, take a closer look at the key performance indicators you're using to monitor the progress of your project to see if the data is telling you a different story.

Engage the development team to talk through the pain points that they've been experiencing to see if they call your attention to one or two specific pieces of work that took considerably more time than was originally estimated. Additionally, pull the entire project team together and work through a fishbone diagram to help flesh out all of the problems.

Build Solutions

After you feel like you have a thorough understanding of the problem, work up some recommendations around a solution. Be as creative as you need to, but you should never go to your stakeholders empty-handed. Even if the ideas you put together feel outlandish, they will be grateful you tried, and they will likely be more engaged in helping you work through the problem. And you never know, they may decide to run with your idea, which would make you look like a hero.

Alternatively, if you just bring your key stakeholders a problem with no thoughts around a solution, they may become frustrated with you or feel like you're being lazy, which can make working through the problem even more challenging.

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Questions a Project Manager Should Ask When Starting a Project

Engage Stakeholders

As soon as you have a solution for the problems that are threatening your project, it's important to engage the key stakeholders as quickly as you can with the summary of the problems and the solutions you've put together. Do not go out of your way to lay blame at the feet of any particular individuals or teams. This will only make the situation worse, and if someone truly is at fault, the stakeholder team will likely get that impression from the data and information you turn over.

Don't be surprised or upset if they get upset if this is the first time they are hearing about the problem. Good leaders will respect that you're making them aware of the problems quickly and you have solutions on the table. However, some leaders will become frustrated, and may take those frustrations out on you, whether or not it's really your fault. Either way, keep the focus on using your recommendations as a building block for a final solution. Also, ask them if there's anyone else they want you to bring to the table. More than likely someone else at your company has run into the same problems you're experiencing on your project, and can help you work through them.

Sometimes the hardest part of working through project problems can be getting key stakeholders to agree on a solution.

Sometimes the hardest part of working through project problems can be getting key stakeholders to agree on a solution.

Agree on a Solution

It may take a more than a few group meetings, individual meetings, and phone calls, and you may have to work with the reporting team to generate more data, but you need to keep everyone focused on working to arrive at a solution to the problems so the project can get back on track.

There will be strong temptation to cut corners; don't do it, and don't let anyone else steer the group toward doing it, as this almost always ends in disaster. Always work to make the group aware of the risks, costs, and implications to the timeline associated with any of the solutions being explored. If everyone on the project team has that information, then the solution the team agrees on is likely to be in the best interest of the business.

Correct and Move Forward

After everyone agrees on the solutions that need to be implemented, the next step is to incorporate the work associated with those solutions into the project plan and re-baseline the project. Re-baselining a project lets you make the necessary adjustments to the project's timeline, budget, and scope, and reset expectations with key stakeholders. After doing this, it's important not to dwell on the problem, but rather keep the team marching toward the finish line.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Max Dalton

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