Coming in to Rescue the Failing Project

Here's the scenario... Someone in the organization is leading a project that is going south fast. Forget about what made it all go wrong. It could be the PM's fault. It could be the customer or the team, or just about a million other factors. At any rate, the PM’s head is the one that rolls and now you’ve been moved into the role of PM on this apparently sinking ship. What do you do?

This has probably happened to most of us at some time or another…I know it’s happened to me. It’s certainly has to be a better feeling than being in the ousted PM’s shoes…but not a lot better.

The first thing(s) to do. Obviously, some immediate corrective action has to happen. But what? And how do you get up to speed? A Project Manager should not take any action without first doing the following:

  • Know the resources on the delivery team
  • Understand the SOW
  • Acquire background knowledge on the customer team members and their concerns
  • Read all status reports and know the last 4 by heart
  • Study the project schedule in detail and be sure to ask lots of question and then ask more questions

There are definitely more tasks the PM is going to take – both formal and informal – to get up to speed, but these are 5 basic ones that have to happen. 

Other tasks may depend somewhat on the circumstances under which the previous PM on the project is exiting. If the previous PM has been terminated, then they’ve been escorted out the door – or worse yet, told by phone – and they will not be a part of any PM-to-PM transition phase or handoff. Under better circumstances, if they are just being replaced because they didn’t blend well with the customer but are being retained for other project work, then it is likely that there will be a transition period. It may not involve the customer if they want him/her gone, but at least it can happen with the delivery team.

Taking corrective action. As the PM, now you’re fairly up to speed and you’re at the helm. How do you ‘right the ship’? If issues and risks tracking has not been a priority before it would be a good place to start now. An overall team meeting to assess where things stand and how things got to this point (sort of a lessons learned at the midway point, I guess) would be a good idea.

I took over a large project that had reached a point where it could go no further until we got past one key issue that was affecting the system processing performance. The customer wouldn’t pay any more and were threatening to pull the plug on the project and go with a 3rd party implementer…it was that bad. I came on board on the project just as we were preparing for an extended pow-wow thing in a central location – both teams in a war room sitting for two weeks. Since we had all-access passes to tech support, the top-level system architects and our own CEO, it was certainly a way to get high-visibility and to get things accomplished. It worked…and we moved on more successfully – and more cohesive as a team and as a vendor-customer relationship from that point on.


No one ‘wants’ to be working in disaster mode, but good can come of it. Taking the right actions to get up to speed and then successfully leading both teams on corrective action toward a successful implementation is both a great feeling and a huge feather in a PM’s career cap. An adrenaline rush that’s not for the faint of heart.

Readers, has this ever been you? Do you agree with this list or what would you change about it? Please share your own experiences.

photo credit: _foam via photopin (license)


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