So your project is failing and needs rescuing, what are the most important steps you can take? Firstly you can take some comfort from the fact you’re not alone, far from it. A tsunami of statistics suggest you’re in the majority but that’s scant consolation when the pressure is on to deliver.

In this post, we’ll assume you’re an experienced Project or Change Manager and have established a clear business case, a well understood project plan and documented deliverables. We’ll outline approaches that will help whether you’ve been in charge of the project from the start or are being ‘parachuted in’ late in the day. The first step sounds simple but is often surprisingly hard to achieve and can’t be rushed...

A Forensic Diagnosis

Before you can treat any patient successfully you need to be certain you understand the exact nature of the complaint. The wrong medicine can be more dangerous than no treatment at all. Resist the temptation to rush headlong into a ‘recovery plan’ until you’re certain you understand the real root cause of the problem or problems. The medical analogy can be helpful here – you might need to run some tests, you’ll definitely need to discuss the symptoms with multiple people and you will probably find it helpful to consult colleagues to check your own diagnosis. There are several ‘Project Health-check’ tools available – find one you like and use it as a rough guide to check the project’s vital statistics.

It’s critically important to ensure you get a broad frame of reference before concluding your diagnosis. Availability Bias, Confirmation Bias and other proven heuristics mean that few individual opinions will be truly representative of reality. The results of our Big Change research provide Five Big areas to look at very closely during this stage of the recovery that aren’t always covered by standard health-checks.

1. Clarity of Purpose and Scope –

Does everyone on the team – from Exec to ‘ground-floor’ give the same answer when asked about the Purpose of this change and what’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ of scope? If not, it’s a good place to start the recovery.

2. Communication –

A bonus of sense-checking the Clarity of Purpose is that you can tick-off number two on the list at the same time. How well communicated are plans and progress – how effective is the communication plan at getting the right information to the right people, at the right time? Does everyone understand the value of this change, what it’s intended to deliver, to who and when? If the answer is no, there should be little surprise that it’s not in great shape.

3. Executive Sponsorship –

The reason you’re in ‘recovery’ mode is probably because the Exec Sponsor feels the project is failing. The crucial factor here is to understand whether this is perception or reality. What are they basing their perspective on? Are they using accurate data or coffee-machine hearsay? Both are important, but the treatment is going to be different.

If you understand the data/evidence that really matters to the Exec then you know which dials to focus on turning. If they’re basing perception on subjective commentary from influential colleagues then it pays to understand who those people are – you’re going to need to work on changing their perception as well as the data to turn your Exec Sponsor around. These influencers may not even be on your stakeholder map at the moment. It’s fair to say that losing Exec Support can be fatal to change initiatives, impacting budgets and resources available to you going forward. Getting them ‘on-board’ for the recovery and making it clear to them how they can help the recovery goes a long way. Encourage them to front communication sessions with the team to show visible support and build the sense of ‘we can do it’.

4. Resource Attitude –

The availability and skill of the resources on your project certainly have an influence but their Attitude or Mind-set has been shown to be even more important. Clearly it’s not ‘one-size-fits-all’ – the team may have been dragging their feet and be part of the problem or they may be superb but battle-weary after a demoralising marathon. The one thing that applies to all scenarios is that you’re not going to execute a successful recovery without them being fully engaged and focused on completion.

Part of the diagnosis has to include soliciting the ideas and input from the team – where do they see the problems and what are their solutions? It’s often our experience that the answers are right there in the project team. Even if they’re not – they’ll appreciate you taking the time to get their input.

It’s important to foster a ‘no-blame’ culture at this point, so welcome the team raising risks and issues. Never defend or respond to the issues raised straight away, instead ask ‘what else?’ – keep mining this important well of insight or rather, ‘tip the bucket’ – an approach to handling objections by asking for more. Get everything on the table before you start addressing any individual issues to avoid going off ‘half-cocked’.

A neat way of starting to change the mind-set, even on a recovery programme, is to introduce an Opportunity Log – this is the opposite of a Risks and Issues log as it captures the Opportunities and ideas that are sparked by the change project. What you talk about and report on sets the tone for any change – introducing discussions around the positive possibilities will influence both the team and the stakeholders. Naturally, during a recovery a lot of the opportunities raised will probably need to be kept out of scope – but rolling them up for a Phase 2 project will still result in a more positive approach to the change and ultimately a list of great ideas for improving the quality of the end product.

5. Quality of Planning –

In our research this is highlighted as a reason for failure more often than it is cited for success. Of course you’ll review the existing plans and reports as part of your diagnosis and your forward looking plan will include publishing a revised plan.

If you’re lucky enough to have avoided some classic ‘right to left’ planning with deadlines set from on high, then your re-planning is a great opportunity to impact the four areas outlined above. Simple recommendations include involving the end-users - especially any vocal critics – in the re-planning process. Plan adoption and user education if it hasn’t already been covered. Visualise your future plan – a big “Plan on a Page” printed and stuck on the wall is a simple but effective way of focusing discussion and increasing understanding. Of course, you’ll also want to plan in some ‘quick-wins’ or proximate/proximal goals. Near-term, achievable deliverables that show positive progress and start to rebuild confidence. Selecting these to align with what you know matters to you Exec Sponsor is just common sense.

A great diagnosis will involve looking at more than just these 5 areas but they’re ones we know make a big difference and that aren’t always covered in detail. To get a practical perspective we also asked some of our experienced Programme Directors for input.

Their responses to the question “what are the most important things to focus on to recover a failing programme?” boil down to -

  • Clear ownership and engagement from the sponsor
  • A strong steering board to make the big calls quickly
  • Good change control in place with tight management of scope
  • Rolled-up consolidation plans with formal dependency mapping
  • Disciplined tracking of progress
  • Strong Resource planning
  • Good comms across teams and stakeholders
  • An experienced leadership team – working as a team
  • Above all keep messages ‘simple’ – even though the programme is complex

If you’re short of a good ‘Project Health-Check’ tool feel free to get in touch and we’ll be happy to share one or our templates.