Blog: Fixing Problem and High-Risk Projects

If you must choose between managing a project or building a team, start with the latter.

Teams run projects, not project managers. Projects fail without teams, plain and simple. Project managers need to start by building a team. Red, or failing, projects have an even bigger problem, the teams are beat up, demoralized, depressed and frustrated. The recovery manager must focus on rebuilding the team. Balancing this with finding the project's issues may seem daunting. Fortunately, many aspects of these tasks overlap and good leadership qualities make it even easier.

Objectivity is paramount. Above all Recovery Managers need to be honest brokers. They must look at every situation (before they become issues) and determine a fair and equitable approach. Allegiance to any party on the project is certain failure. Why? Recovery Managers are mediators in a negotiation process. Only fair and objective treatment of the project team, suppliers and customer will allow the recovery manager to reach an acceptable recovery goal.

It is amazing how people on failing projects neglect to look at their own issues prior to blaming someone else. Yes, blame is easy and on red projects since no wants to be the source of the issues. The truth is, everyone is at blame, so before bringing in an auditor or recovery manager, tidy up your house first.

In a meeting the other day, one exasperated participant exclaimed, "This isn't part of all the processes I just learned to get my PMP, how am I supposed to run this project?" I bit my tongue and refrained from looking over the top of my glasses and calmly telling him that running a project is a heck of a lot more than a series of check boxes. The poor guy was frustrated and lost. He was truly dumbfounded. His hard-earned certification failed to prepared him for his new assignment.

A garageWe have all noticed how there is never enough space, money or time. It escapes no one and nothing. If there are two weeks to do a task it will take two weeks, if there is a $10,000 budget it will take $10,000 to do whatever it was. It is human nature. The goal has been set, it must be acceptable, so we strive to meet it. I refer to it as the "Garage Syndrome"—junk swells to fill the space in the garage.

Are project success rates getting better or worse? What is the cost? What are the controlling factors? How does someone calculate these numbers? The answers are elusive. Lately, Roger Sessions has taken exception to one source—The Standish Group. He has many valid points. However, I doubt there are any statistics giving us a complete picture.

This twitter banter prompted me to dust off some old reports, dig through my library and search my online files to pull some meaningful data together. I was wondering about the headline sentence of this year's Standish Chaos Report, which contains "[2008's] results show a decrease in project success rates, with 32% of all projects succeeding." A pretty alarming statement.

Mega Screen Projects can be on-time, within budget, meet the specifications and still be a failure. Case in point, the new Dallas 160x72 foot mega screen. It seems the screen displays what it should, but is positioned a bit too low. So low, that on August 21st, the punter kicked a ball into it. Did someone forget the purpose of the stadium was playing football?

The project team has an obligation to tell leadership or the customer when they think the direction of the project is wrong. However, at some point the team must follow management. They have to trust management has the insight to know what needs to be done. I call this "Finding Religion." People must act on faith believing the direction is best for the company. This is often contrary to data that is in front of the team and indicates another direction.

Stop Sign

Red project recovery is a four-step process. One must, however, determine a short-term plan for the project. It takes time to get to a resolution and it is nonsensical to continue spending money at the current rate. Other than doing nothing, there are two remaining options:

Recovery Flow The four steps to bring a project back from red. They are:

  1. Project Audit;
  2. Data Analysis;
  3. Solution Negotiation;
  4. Plan Execution.

Like any recovery, be it twelve-step or four-step, it goes nowhere without realization of the problem. Step zero is acknowledging the failure. Without this step, the problems and subsequent resolutions will not have full recognition and the project recovery will fail due to the lack of management support. With realization, the recovery process has meaning.

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