Brainfood: Crash course in project recovery

The project from heaven has turned into the development programme from hell.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nobody has said anything yet, but milestones are about to be missed, you're over-budget and now people aren't turning up for meetings.

How to get back on track?

Admit you're in trouble. As with alcoholics, the first step is to acknowledge you have a problem. Look for early warning signs, says Nuala MacDermott, a rescue specialist at PA Consulting. 'These include stakeholders who are not engaged, lack of clarity, things that haven't happened.'

Don't look back. Concentrate on plotting the direction forward, not a lengthy postmortem. 'Quite often, the thing that caused you to be late or over-budget has already happened,' says Tom Taylor of the Association for Project Management. 'It's more important to stop failing and stabilise.'

Call in consultants. Some consultancies have specialist project recovery teams who have long experience. But as MacDermott points out: 'It is much more expensive when things go wrong than calling us in when you are designing the project at the beginning.'

Don't point the finger. Laying blame won't help you recover. 'People will give you warning of further problems only if there is a no-blame culture,' says Martin Barnes of the Major Projects Association.

Consider cancellation. This may be the best option if your project is not going to deliver the functionality promised, will cost more than the forecast return on investment, or will finish too late to meet a market opportunity.

Says Barnes: 'There may be external factors - the market may have disappeared and the business case has fallen apart while you've been working on it.' With large projects, conduct a gateway review before each new stage of commitment.

Give and take. Among your options to recover a project are: reduce its scope or speci- fication (but only if it still meets its business objectives), add extra resources or extend deadlines. 'One option might be to stagger the handover, so you don't need everything finished at the same time,' advises Taylor.

Re-write contracts. This may be the time to renegotiate contracts, including performance incentives with suppliers and even your own people.

Inject fresh blood. Sacking the entire team might be inadvisable, but new people will bring fresh ideas with no emotional baggage. 'The optimum is a mix of old and new blood,' says MacDermott.

Rally the troops. Restoring team morale is a priority and there are a number of ways you can do this. Chalk up some easy wins, celebrate successes, and get the sponsors of the project to come and show their appreciation. Give everyone a couple of days off.

Do say: 'At this early stage we are reviewing the resources, timescales and budgets to ensure the project's successful completion.'

Don't say: 'If we just carry on, perhaps it will sort itself out.'

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