Ever taken over one of those sinking projects halfway through the engagement? If you haven't yet...you probably will at some point. So prepare yourself. And, much like buying a used car, there will be surprises. The question is, did you inherit something in decent working order or did you inherit a lemon?
Sometimes you can tell by the reason the previous project manager gave up the reins to the project. If he left the company against his will, then you can probably assume it will be a mess. If he left for a better job at another company or left the project for one that he was specifically needed on (had a good history with the client or had a skill set that was needed by the new project), then you can likely assume it will be in decent shape when you take it over.
Let's assume – for the sake of this article – that soon after you inherited this project from the outgoing project manager, you realized it's a complete mess. Now what do you do? All eyes are on you. Ready, set, go!
Get to know the team. Sounds like a getting to know you session, but it can be a little painful. You need to meet with the team in the first couple of hours – if possible – of taking over the project. You've seen those crime shows where it seems like it's happening over several days and then you realize it's really over about 12 hours. That needs to be this project transition. In the first 24 hours, you need to make this and the next 2 steps happen. Get to know the team, find out what's wrong, what they think is going “ok” and brainstorm on what to do next.
Reach out to the project customer and be ready for backlash. Chances are, the project client will not start out as your friend. Coming in, you're as bad as the project is, and as bad as the last project manager was. Until you do something positive, or prove yourself, you're just a a different face and voice associated with the same mess. I was called in as a consultant to save three projects that were threatening to shut a new startup down. They had no real project management wrapped around these three implementations. I was given complete control of the development staff and asked to turn these three projects around. I had all three clients come onsite for an introduction and presentation. It took them a week or two after that to really warm up to me and to get past their initial skepticism, but as soon as I started turning things around, I was their new best friend. If things were going really bad and you start giving them something good, it doesn't take much to start to make their confidence rise. In some cases, these customers are starving for something good to happen...they are desparate but don't want all of the money they've spent so far to be a waste. They will give you a leash, but it won't be a very long one. They've been waiting for someone to do something positive and you're up.
Revise the project schedule and get going. Once you've taken your place, gained leadership of the team, and meet with the project client, then you can finalize a newly revised project schedule based on the discussions and decisions that came out of those first two steps above. Get the new project schedule out to all key stakeholders and move on to next steps, which must include weekly internal project team meetings – or daily standups in the agile world – and weekly project status meetings or calls with your project customer.
Summary / call for input
I realize these may be somewhat simplified steps. But these are essentially the basics – in my opinion – of what has to happen in the first 3-5 days of taking over a disastrous project. These steps won't take away the pain the project team and client have experienced and likely won't turn the project around – at least not by themselves. But they are steps in the right direction, and they are the steps you must take immediately when you take on a project that is just about ready to go into the dumpster. You will be met with some skepticism, but at least you'll be fresh for a day or two and look like a savior for a couple more days after that. Take advantage of that positive outlook that you get just from taking over. Make a great first impression and everything you do after that will be a little easier. Look confident, be confident and most of all...lead.
Readers – what's your take? And what has been your experiences with taking over messy, failing projects? What do you do first? Second? Please share your thoughts.