Get Your Project Back on Track

tracksMitzi, a portfolio manager with a regional insurance provider, was sent into a project that had been underway for a couple of years. “It was behind its deadlines, way over budget, and the team was pretty demoralized on it because all they heard about were all the failures.”

How do you get a project like that back on track? Instead of continuing down a path that was going nowhere, she went for a reboot. “We stopped thinking about it as a huge failure and started thinking about it as a foundation. We went in and said, ‘If we’re going to do this right, how would we do it? Forget what we did yesterday. What would we do?'”

In other words, the team “scrapped the whole approach.” They were using waterfall but shifted to agile instead. “We re-platformed and rebranded the whole thing, the team got reinvigorated, and we found success.”

It’s a new year, but like Mitzi, maybe you’re stuck with the same old project. How do you overcome failure? During a recent PMI Symposium, we asked seven experts for advice. Here’s how they tackle the problems.

Tap Internal Know-how

Irene, a program manager at a healthcare organization in New York, recommends getting to know the people on the project. “Lots of times they’re under-utilized,” she says. “I find when you get to know them and you take the time to talk to them, they really have a wealth of information,” which could be used, she pointed out, to pull a project back from the brink.

For example, one project she worked on was installing an editing tool for claims that get processed. It was only during the testing phase that she found out the “business owner” of the tool wasn’t the person who works on the claims database. Actual users “should have been involved in the requirements phase because they had great insight. We could have done things differently if we’d talked to them originally.”

Broadcast the Urgency

Mike, who works in a pharmaceutical PMO in Minnesota, said the best thing he’s ever done on a project that “required additional overtime and required all-hands-on-deck” was to fill the department fridge with Jolt Cola and Mountain Dew.

“Mentally it made a difference,” he recalls. “I don’t know if people are really gung-ho about drinking twice the caffeine; but it showed the urgency and importance of the project, and that the PMO was behind the team to accomplish those activities.”

Ask for Help

Melissa, a portfolio manager at a major regional utility, believes in going straight to the top when things head south. “Getting your executive involved makes a huge difference,” she says.

But she doesn’t go cold-calling. She was advised early in her career to “ask lots of questions” and to set up regular meetings with the business sponsor to begin with. That allows her to understand, “what’s the stuff I have free reign over and what’s the stuff [he or she] wants me to check in on.”

Over time, she’s learned how to determine which events needed to be “escalated,” because they “could cause the project to stop in its tracks.”

Also, this PMP tends to take possible solutions into those meetings when she can, but her approach is to be open minded: “Here are the steps we’re taking. Is there anything else you think we should be doing?”

“You can’t pretend to know the answers,” she notes. “If you’re really stuck, that means you’re at the point where you need some help or you’re going to be at that point.”

And sometimes there are no answers for her to bring to her sponsors, “because something side-swiped us from someplace else.” In those cases, her job is to encourage people to come together, figure out what happened and determine the risk. From there, it’s up to the executives to make the decision about what should happen next.

Remind People Why the Project Matters

Sometimes you need to make sure the project gets off to a good start. Suman, a PMO director in a global service provider, makes sure that the project has been represented to its participants not as a series of deadlines and tasks, but as something that’s going to serve a purpose. Many of the projects where he’s been involved do that by having the team members create a joint vision statement in order to help understand the impact it’s going to have when it’s finished.

“That’s so people can relate to it, so it doesn’t remain a programming exercise,” he explains. “It’s something that is going to improve the quality of life for an individual. Those are the things that make a big difference.”

To make sure the vision statement “sticks,” it’s printed on a small card and stuck up in everybody’s cubicle “as a daily reminder.”

Understand Your Stakeholders

Bryan, who runs the PMO for a national organization focused on affordable housing, makes sure he gets to know his stakeholders. Doing so ensures that when a project hits bumps, the PMO will understand what motivates them, what they’re “ultimately looking for,” and therefore what the best resolution would be.

That kind of relationship-building doesn’t happen in meetings, he emphasizes, because those are focused on the business at hand. “Most of the time it’s walking around, stopping and saying, ‘Hey, how are you doing?'”

Kill Early and Often

Of course, sometimes projects need to step off the ledge. As Dave, the head of a PMO for a manufacturer in Wisconsin, suggested, when managing a wayward project, you shouldn’t wait. “Do it now. Take that project by the horns, figure out what’s wrong with it, and either get it back on track, put it on hold or kill it.”

If you ignore the problems, he adds, “It’s going to continue to burn cycles.”

His preferred approach is to use a steering committee to prioritize work and then “cancel projects helpfully.”


Image courtesy of Mark Fischer — CC 2.0

Written by Dian Schaffhauser
Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG's editor. She's been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at She promises to let you know what she really thinks.
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  1. I enjoyed reading this, great reminders and a few new approached that I can take.

  2. Thanks, Shannon. And if you have anything to add to the topic, please do so! — Di

  3. Nice article Dian. I would add “Don’t be afraid to reorganize the team”

    Sometimes on troubled projects, team members are in the wrong role(s). In these cases, the project (or program) manager should not be afraid to make staffing adjustments. These role swaps may be required to improve technical capability or, fix team dynamics. Sometimes, some team members just don’t get along with others…you need to fix these issues early.

    Good luck!

  4. Excellent advice, Ira! Thanks for your contribution to the topic! — Di

  5. These are all excellent points. I often find that re-setting the goal of the project and “Remind People Why the Project Matters” gives the project team a refreshed sense of why they matter. I project / program manage a team of younger developers. They work hard but if they think that their contributions don’t matter, their attitudes become very passive. Once that happens, it takes a lot to re-build trust. Consistency and open communication is also key to getting a project gone awry back on the rails.

  6. Good points from you too, Tonya, especially that one about how easy it is to demotivate the younger members of the team.

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