How do we recover the troubled Project?

Many projects become sick, and the leadership starts doubting whether the project will ever provide the envisaged benefits. Delays, cost overruns, changes in the team, multiple changes in the scope itself make projects get into a deep red. A project is considered as a troubled project if the difference between what is expected and what is being accomplished is becoming too large. If not recovered in time, the project will collapse into complete failure. Project Management CoE ( PMCoE ), an IT Project Management consulting company specializes in recovering troubled projects and also help build similar capabilities for their clients
Many project managers/leaders are not able to foresee the coming trouble and are not able to control the project, allowing it to get into trouble. The recovery intervention on such projects needs to start as early as possible. The more the delay in the decision to recover or close, the higher the cost/ loss; in case of significant delays, the projects may not be even recoverable. The recovery process follows the following steps:
i. Redefining the project.
ii. Reducing/realigning the scope.
iii. Re-justifying the project financially.
iv. Improved stakeholder management.
v. Adding and removing resources.
vi. Resolving problematic technical issues.
vii. Replacing the project manager or bringing in a consultant/experience project manager to manage the recovery.
The Project Management CoE recovery process follows the following steps
Step 1 - Confirm that the project is ‘troubled.’ Some of the indicators of troubled projects:
• No one has a firm idea of when the project will finish, some vague guesses are being made.
• The outputs of the project are full of defects.
• Team members are working excessive hours and plenty of involuntary overtime.
• Management is not able to ascertain the project’s status with accuracy.
• The customer or executive management has lost confidence that the team will ever deliver the promised goods or services.
• The team is defensive about its progress.
• The self-confidence of the project team is very low.
• Relations among the project team members are strained.
• A few stakeholders are recommending the cancellation of the project.
• The customer is threatening legal action against the service provider.
Step 2 - Identify the causes of troubled projects
One of the critical reason for many projects get into the trouble is gaps in the project managers’ skills and experience to execute the project successfully. PM with adequate skills should be able to anticipate the risks and manage the issues well to save a project for getting into trouble. PM Solution research report published in 2011 on ‘strategies for project recoveries’ which surveyed 163 respondents conclude that the top five causes of troubled projects are:
• Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.
• Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of critical resources, poor planning.
• Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic and overly optimistic.
• Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, and poor estimates.
• Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.
Step 3- Decide whether the project is to be recovered
Once the reasons for project trouble are known, the management needs to decide whether the project should be recovered or should be closed and decide that It is essential to find out the root causes of troubled projects, and estimate the cost of recovery.
The following are some of the reasons which are likely to result in the cancellation of the project.
• The expected business benefits cannot be delivered.
• The political environment with the client or with service providers is no longer sustainable.
• Contractual or judicial/legal disputes is in progress that makes the project unfeasible.
• The project sponsor is no longer available, and there is no apparent replacement.
• The business needs or market conditions have changed.
• The technology being used has become obsolete.
If the project is to be recovered, significant changes may be required in the project structure. Whether the changes are in scope, budget, resources, etc., recovering of the troubled project will require restructuring the project. Communicating to stakeholders to accept the changes needed to bring the projects back on track is at times a challenging endeavor. Decision makers here are generally the senior management and not the project sponsor or the project manager.
The following approach is recommended to get the changes accepted:
• Establish the required communication with essential stakeholder engagement.
• Provide clear details as required by the stakeholders.
• Establish trust.
• Address conflicting priorities.
• Address politics.
• Find enough qualified resources needed to complete the projects.
• Adhere to the right processes or methodologies to help bring the project back on track.
i. Take the following steps to recover the project
Once the required stakeholders agree to project recovery, well-planned corrective actions and execution of the recovery process are needed to analyze and make the project a success. Quick fixes will not yield desirable results when faced with a troubled project. The first thing is to identify its magnitude and the actions that should be immediately taken. Time lost will multiply the damage and increase the effort to recover.
The recovery methodology involves two prominent level phases, Assess and Recover.
Step 1 - Assess
Assessment is the structured review of the project and project plans and consists of the following phases:
• Position the ‘Recovery Manager’: An experienced project manager who is accepted by the organization’s senior management, possesses required experience in recovering troubled projects and adequate soft skills, should be positioned. Acceptance by the organization’s senior management is essential since the recovery manager should work closely with them and will require their support to recover the project successfully. The recovery project manager reviews the business strategy, organization structure, business processes and works jointly with stakeholders for getting the contracts and statements of work. He or she manages dependencies, schedules, risks, and expectations. The recovery manager owns the delivery and works as facilitator, implementer and change agent. A recovery manager is expected to demonstrate the following abilities.
o Drill down into the details but can see the big picture.
o Recognize that people make things happen.
o Focus on business needs and objectives.
o Understand strategic needs, expectations setting and delivering results.
o Implement best practices and methodologies of project management.
o The design required PM solutions.
o Take decisions, be patient and a keen listener, take required risks and handle significant stress.
• Define the assessment charter: Once the assessment for Project recovery is sanctioned and the recovery lead is positioned, the focus is towards determining the current “real” status of the project. Correctly ‘what is done’ and ‘what is not done’ is determined to build the recovery plan. The project history, complexity, hidden issues and other reasons for the trouble are understood. The team and project players meet and commit to the same objectives. The assessment approach, schedule, and the skills, people and data needed to conduct the assessment are decided, and the assessment charter is prepared and approval obtained.
• Develop the assessment plan: A comprehensive assessment plan needs to be developed in line with the charter objectives to assess in optimum time with accurate findings. The tone of the assessment team should be to make recommendations on what to fix and not to blame anyone or find fault. Critical documentation is reviewed, and the assessment plan based on the needs of the project is developed and approved by the sponsor. Tools to be used are decided. Required project documentation is made available. Assessment team questionnaires are prepared. Commitments from resources to be interviewed are made. Agenda for kick-off meeting is agreed.
• Conducting the assessment: The objective is to determine major threats, problems, and opportunities. Meetings and interviews are conducted with all concerned as per the assessment plan, and all the project data is thoroughly reviewed and analyzed. The changes needed in people, product, process, and tools are determined. The preliminary findings are consolidated and updated. Findings are signed off during this phase. The threats, problems, opportunities, and recommendations are listed and ranked for priority.
Step 2 - Recover
The recovery phase involves salvaging something or everything useful from the project based on the findings of the Assessment phase. The following are the two phases for recovery
• Prepare Recovery Plan: A Recovery Plan is developed that clearly defines the goals and objectives, schedule and milestones, and scope including identification of the critical path. This recovery plan includes the criterion that defines success so that all project stakeholders know when the project is out of the crisis and has arrived at a state of normalcy once the criteria are achieved. The resources needed to recover the project are determined. The recovery plan is communicated, and the expectations are reset. The required approvals for the plan are obtained. Preliminary agreements are completed during this phase and recovery project baselines are finalized.
• Execute the recovery plan. The objective of this phase is to execute the recovery plan to get the project to deliver the anticipated benefits in line with expectations. During execution, the estimating methods and their accuracy are continuously validated, and an accurate forecast of project completion is made. Threats, problems, and opportunities are continuously monitored. The output of this phase is a recovered project.
• The project recovery manager needs to have adequate support from key stakeholders. Political consolidation of the project with the project sponsor, organization executives, and other key stakeholders and broad, unrestricted support is essential.
• To get started, the leadership approach of being ‘task-oriented’ and not ‘relationship-oriented’ is likely to be more helpful till the time the situation becomes favorable. In the beginning, as leader-member relations are getting developed the task-oriented approach is likely to deliver better results. Leader-member relations will be necessary during this phase. Tasks should be clear and structured as a fresh, realistic recovery plan has been agreed. Tasks need to be prioritized to address the needs of key stakeholders. Project recovery managers ensure a smooth transition to the project manager and the team while restructuring the project team. It is essential that proper due diligence is carried out before restructuring the team. The recovery manager needs to be proactively aggressive.
The recovery team needs to create a robust communication program with a positive message about the changes. They need to maintain optimistic attitudes and environment and hope for success. They need to demonstrate personal commitment to assure the success of the recovery strategy. Time has been lost, and money has been spent; one or both are over established limits in troubled projects. Enough negativity about the project has been communicated to the organization. With a positive but realistic tone, the project recovery manager needs to be assertive in reaching out, communicating and interacting with the key stakeholders and keeping them updated.
Author – Sachdeepak Arora is the founder of Project Management CoE and is also the Author of ‘Transform and Thrive – A step by step guide for successful execution of transformation programs.’