How to recognise when projects need rescuing (and how to handle it)

Not all projects are created equal. Some sail through and pass off without a hitch (or so the people responsible for them will tell you!) However, take these stories with a pinch of salt, because the truth is that these are often few and far between.

You can watch every webinar, read every article or listen to any podcast out there telling you how to run the perfect project, but actually delivering transformation is a lot easier said than done. Even the best-planned projects and programmes can take a bad turn.

You know the ones we are talking about. Projects where the underlying tone of meetings shifts from excitement to frustration. Sponsors and those responsible for the change spend most of their time on the back foot, justifying the latest delay or overspend. People begin to roll their eyes every time they hear the project mentioned and they stop reading (or even believing) the progress updates that have just arrived in their inbox for the 14th month running without any sign of something actually changing.

We would love to tell you this doesn’t happen, but it does. In fact, 70% of major change projects fail to deliver forecasted benefits (McKinsey). The scope does change, budgets do get cut and working with suppliers comes with its fair share of pain at times.

It doesn’t always have to be this way.

Just because this happens, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t simple, practical ways to get things back-on-track.

The first step is being able to recognise if a problem exists in the first place.

If you suspect a project is on the slide, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you know the true state of play? Even if you get a status report, do you trust the information in it?
  • Does the business and end-users of the change understand the benefits, and how it will affect them?
  • Is there a solid plan in place to deliver the project, and is there resource available to actually deliver it?
  • Do you have a grip on the key issues and risks facing the project, and how they can be mitigated?
  • Are you clear on exactly what will be delivered (and therefore what won’t be)?
  • Is the project still justified? Will it deliver tangible benefits to the business still?

If you don’t get satisfactory answers to all of these, some changes are going to be required to get you back on track.

Take action.

It’s important that you take action. In some cases, if you’ve asked yourself the above questions, it will likely be obvious what needs to improve. Perhaps it’s just providing some feedback, challenging assumptions or re-engaging people through some well-thought-out project communications to excite them again.

Maybe, though, the problem is deeper. Does your current team have the expertise or capacity to deliver the change? Do you faith in their ability to deliver on the business case? If the answer to this is no, you do have some options in the form of further training for your team, or even bringing in additional external support.

Don’t be afraid to question whether the rationale for the project still exists. Does the project or programme still deliver against the business strategy? Sometimes, the best (and bravest) decision to make is to re-evaluate this and pause (or even close) the project. Don’t get caught in throwing good money after bad.

But beware! Avoid the blame game and skip to getting things back on track.

Of course, there is always the ‘why’. Why has this gone wrong? Who’s responsible? But this is unhelpful and unnecessary during a project. Save it for the end and ensure there’s time to put aside to learn the lessons.

It would be naïve to think that turning a struggling project or programme around will be easy, so don’t expect it to be. Those who are ultimately responsible for it – whether they are the project team, the board, the supplier or someone else altogether – they won’t exactly encourage the extra scrutiny that may ultimately lead to them being ‘found out’. That’s why it’s really important to take the blame out of the equation and be clear in your focus on finding a solution rather than finding someone to pin any problems on. Lessons learned, feedback and development can (and should) come later down the line when the project is finished.

You may be worried that you’re finding this a repeating problem across every project in your organisation’s portfolio, there may be a more systemic problem that needs to be looked at. That’s another question altogether, and one we will leave for another blog post. Until then, the steps above will be enough to kick-start your own road to recovery.

If you would like more information about how to get your project back on track, please contact Huw Jones huwj@ninefeettall.com.

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