“Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion” – Francis Bacon.
Introduction to project recovery
Running projects is as much about people management as it is project management. This article does not intend to reinforce the methods or styles of project management; rather it focuses on some of the root causes that often ‘derail’ the project – even when procedures are followed – and more importantly how we can go about ‘fixing’ them.
- 1 Introduction to project recovery
- 2 Reasons for going off track
- 3 Psychology of participants
- 4 Goals to aim for
- 5 Summary for effective project recovery
A ‘good’ project manager, or any manager for that matter, will make any ‘poor’ process work – albeit it’s harder; a ‘poor’ project manager will probably fail even with a ‘good’ process in place. The method and process we are all familiar with, or hear and read about, give you an ‘edge’ to deliver a successful project nothing more – it doesn’t guarantee it. Though, without a method or process you will almost certainly be guaranteed to fail.
Is there a formula or template for getting projects ‘back on track’? Probably not, given that you will have already used those to get the project underway in the first place. If there is any formula it is most likely to be you; and hopefully some of the pointers I offer here will enable you deliver it.
Finally, ‘popular’ project managers are an illusion. However, in a world of competing perspectives and finite even limited resources, you will discover impartiality is a much sought after virtue by the ‘great’ and ‘small’ alike when it comes to managing projects.
Reasons for going off track
There are many reasons why projects go off track; and often there is more than one. Combinations of ‘little’ things can derail the project just as effectively as one major issue; they are the more difficult to deal with. Rarely are projects ‘doomed’ before they start – though it can happen. I would identify the following in priority as having the greatest ‘derailment’ impact:
- Sponsorship and visible support – This is at the top of the list, and with the key word here being ‘visible’. If you don’t have this, the project is at a serious disadvantage and can be doomed at the outset. If there are any doubts, get the sponsor to understand that this – It is your authority.
- Realistic schedule – When there is no schedule at all, people will start guessing; this is worse than an unrealistic schedule. Optimistic as well as pessimistic schedules discredit a project. Ignore those that show disdain for project planning, even if they come from senior management positions. By planning your project in a realistic way, you will always know what’s going on.
- Communication – Just because people send texts, ‘tweets’, emails, and use the phone does not mean they communicate. Key metrics and consistent indicators inform you and provide the most valuable data – everything else is just commentary.
- Stakeholder acceptance – While it might be obvious, make sure to identify the genuine stakeholders. There is nothing worse than when you realize you have an enthusiastic ‘stakeholder’ with no accountability for project outcomes. It’s not sufficient you ask the right questions, you have to make sure the right person is answering them. For example, find out about ‘stakeholders’ who do not have an email signature or contact details.
- Change control – The danger here is when scope and budgets have been agreed upon but then changes are introduced by ‘stealth’. There is nothing wrong with change, just make sure it gets communicated and documented. As soon as your mind questions ‘quietly’ you question ‘loudly’ – trust your intuition.
- Expectations – Remember to present options not a fait accompli; people don’t like to ‘feel trapped’ and that’s when they will become aggressive. When people have a choice it makes a big difference, even when the difference in outcome is not that great.
One practice that can significantly reduce project risks is the adoption of ‘Project Assurance’ in the form of a review around two weeks into the project. The objective is for someone to offer early stage collaboration to ‘shadow’ the project manager. More often than not, it is routine confirmation and eliminates the dangers of assumptions. Paradoxically, the more experienced the project manager the greater the tendency for risk of assumptions in the early stages.
Defining ‘back on track’
Defining ‘back on track’ is not opinion it is a definitive statement; it involves the kind of activity you get at the start-up of a project. Re-aligned schedules and scope will need to be communicated with stakeholders and a consensus reached. In short, everyone will know when the project is ‘back on track’ because that status will have been defined. Delays in key dates will have been accepted, new ones scheduled and resources re-allocated. ‘Back on track’ doesn’t mean trying to recover the ‘unrecoverable’ and turning the project into an exercise of ‘managing failure’ week in and week out – few teams can cope with that kind of environment.
Following on from defining ‘back on track’, three areas will present an opportunity for immediate project recovery; neglect them and the project will stall and be right back where it started. Also, this isn’t necessarily a step by step approach (i.e. waiting for one to be completed before doing the next). All three can be addressed simultaneously; it is convenient to deal with them separately here:
Vision and scope
Without this you will get no project coherence and it will fail to hang together. Do not assume everyone knows what the project is supposed to be about. Reinforcing the vision and scope is an exercise in ‘hearts and minds’. Taking time out to reinforce the business plan, changes in role, deferred changes, follow-on actions, or simply a display of your confidence will prove worthwhile even though nothing is immediately apparent. The key is re-calibrating minds from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’.
More than likely people will feel ‘battered and bruised’ professionally and personally following a stalled project. Often the team has to be recovered as a whole; and the basis of that is a strong ‘peer-to-peer’ grouping. In all the years’ delivering projects I rarely held line manager responsibility. And in my experience the strongest driver is a culture where ‘letting colleagues’ or ‘team mates’ down is eschewed. If you can’t manage people through the project, having line manager ‘authority’ may not be the help you think it will be.
Not every project manager has access to a corporate PMO facility. During the course of a project a lot of information will be generated; therefore, a lot of time and energy re-sending email threads and attachments is the hallmark of chaos. Even a simple Windows file structure on a shared location where people know where to go can transform the way information is shared to inform and to prepare ‘next steps. It is the first thing I get in place and encourage the team to ‘own’ it.
Psychology of participants
It’s worth taking a moment to be aware at least of the kind of ‘players’ we may be up against, or alongside of during the course of a project. What we are is more likely to influence project outcomes rather than who we are. Bear in mind, that adopting a management style is a skill to be used not a personality change – though there are exceptions under very rare circumstances outside the scope of this article.
Generally speaking few like working for the autocrat. This type is typically defined as someone who leads by dictating and controlling all decisions in the group or task. It is the kind of behaviour often exhibited with the “Just Get It Done” style of management. In the long run, it is damaging, but in the short-term it can be ‘life-saving’ when there just isn’t the time to explain or “educate”.
The compliant response to an autocrat can be equally short-term without getting too “upset” or feeling you are sacrificing your self-respect. It takes someone special to adopt styles of management commensurate with the situation. Moving from one style to another demonstrates and requires a presence of mind not often encountered, but can be acquired through practice.
Accepting an ‘Autocrat’ style is probably a reasonable expectation in project recovery; thereafter it will probably get in the way – and may have been one of the causes of failure in the first place. However be prepared to use this style at the outset of a project recovery.
As far as Project Managers go this is probably the worst style you can adopt, whether in project recovery or otherwise. The Laissez-Faire offer little guidance and complete freedom for others to make decisions and solve problems on their own. In the long run, this will be a stress generator worse than associated with the ‘Autocrat’. Research has demonstrated this style of management offers the lowest levels of productivity among group working. It is generally to be avoided, and as a project manager I struggle to see when you would adopt this style.
This is the one we probably would all agree is the style to be preferred. It certainly has merit, though you have to be a good listener. And above all the capacity to analyse competing perspectives before drawing conclusions together to re-present and secure the consensus is needed. Adopting this style too early in a project recovery situation may be counterproductive; it will often follow autocratic styles relatively smoothly.
Uncertainty saps the energy out of people and ultimately out of the project. Therefore, it needs to be managed. However, you will never eliminate it totally. The uncertainty I am talking about here is the participants of the project.
Some take a hard view about the causes of uncertainty, for example through either ignorance or laziness. I have found common causes of uncertainty include poor communications with the over use or introduction of acronyms and short event horizons. In such situations people are not sure what to expect next and feel they are always in ‘catch-up’ mode. Probably the most common cause of uncertainty is lack of ‘feedback’ both in the context of project progress and personal or team contribution. Where feedback is present, uncertainty is reduced and much easier to manage.
The first thing to ‘evaporate’ In the face of uncertainty is confidence, which is then replaced by fear or at best indecision manifested by putting off action to ‘another day’ that often turns into another week. Before long, the project is pushed so far to the right that it falls out of sight. Another effect is the time wasted as people seek to ‘console’ by sharing common frustrations. These are not unreasonable responses, but allowing them to become routine is.
The greatest ‘antidote’ to uncertainty is feedback, even encouraging a ‘second opinion’ from within the group is a form of feedback. The problem of the participant who doesn’t know ‘which way to turn’ due to confusing ‘messages’ or volume of demand can soon be settled by someone running through the project plan and presenting the context of next steps – even an appraisal of what has been achieved so far. It is fanciful perhaps, but I use feedback as a matter of routine to head off uncertainty. And it is the most effective ‘tool in the box’ of project management as far as I am concerned.
Do not spend time thinking about what people will do, only what you will do. Do not think ‘everyone is out to get you’ even when they are. Adopt a flexible management style that suits the occasion. Be predictable. When you schedule reviews, be there and hold them; maintain a common format for meetings and communicating. Make speaking the preferred means of communication. I was once described as ‘Worthy but Dull’ – I took it as a compliment having delivered multi-million dollar projects, measured not in weeks but years, with the same key people around me as when I started.
Goals to aim for
If you have one or two stakeholders that share a common purpose, be thankful. Where you have multiple stakeholders each holding different views, especially on priorities, avoid being the hub with independent paths of communication leading into you. One tactic is to push out information to all the stakeholders at the same time so they can see where they sit in the priority of tasks. I have found this to be the most effective method of ‘controlling’ unreasonable demands as they ‘sort it out’ between themselves before coming back and asking if I agree, which I always do of course – it is a form of feedback.
Someone once asked a candidate at a job interview the question: “Are you a team player?” To which she replied “That depends on the team!” A good answer that many think is always “Yes”. Do not assume because people are in a group they are a team or that non-team ‘players’ can’t contribute. People experience internal competition, have favourites, experience HR issues. And in an age where businesses adopt social networking there are a myriad of factors that can conjoin or push apart working relationships during the course of a project – so don’t worry about them, manage them, and remember you will not ‘win’ or ‘lose’ them all.
We rarely feel bad about being included in a meeting, though when we are not ‘invited’ that’s different. Meetings can be a real-time waster and expensive. Some tips in the context of projects:
- Never call a meeting without an agenda and follow thru notes – even in simple email format.
- Be ready to pose a question for the person ‘tapping the keyboard’ or texting while on mute.
- Short more frequent meetings are better than long infrequent ones.
- Avoid observers and focus on action orientated meetings rather than process.
Don’t waste time on…
There are some things that are counter-intuitive (i.e. they seem like the right thing to do but actually they really are a waste of time especially in the context of getting projects ‘back on track’). Here are my top three to avoid:
You will be amazed by the number of people who tell you about when they were Project Managers. It’s a compliment and recognition of your status so assume it; you do not have to be pompous or arrogant. You are the spearhead of governance without which every project will founder. Do not explain it; you do not have the time, reinforce it – that’s the autocrat part.
Other people’s time management
If people miss meetings, forget the review schedule, or turn in late, don’t wait for them. It takes an especially thick ‘rhinoceros’ hide to keep turning into meetings half-way through conversation with little acknowledgement they’ve even been missed. One neat method is to ‘grey out’ the font of the name on the attendees list when circulating meeting notes. Those subtleties get noticed, which then turn into apologies and soon into useful attendance and contribution.
Do spend time on
Some people are worth campaigning for even when inexperienced or uncertain. Take time for such people because they are tomorrow’s greatest contributors’. Remember attitudes are caught, not taught.
People who ask
Attending to questions such as ‘What do I do next?’ or ‘How do I do it better?’ does not take that much time and presents the perfect opportunity to energise a project. Enthusiasm counts for a lot when the goal is to recover the project. Sometimes the Project Manager needs encouragement too.
People who offer
Ideas about project business are a good foundation to build ‘peer to peer’ relationships. Do not turn down offers of help from team members who see a hard-pressed Project Manager – don’t let pride get in the way. Let someone else ‘feel’ they are really contributing to the project success by being seen to be doing something more.
Information sharing is the mark of a successful team, and can be contrasted with information retention – associated with old fashioned views about ‘knowledge and power’. Focus on making information easily accessible, and use it as a resource for day to day business routine. This will create mutual respect among participants of the project – people who share information can be trusted.
A word about email
Project Management by email is a ‘double-edged sword that cuts both ways’. Some companies are actively restricting email servers, and in some cases removing them altogether because of the amount of time wasted. I’m not sure how I would cope without having email, but I think we can all understand the sentiment. Here are the basics as far as project managers go:
- Communicate feedback status and updates – not opinion.
- Do not use the Cc… list to coerce compliance.
- Apply the % rule of ‘thumb’ for eliciting a response (i.e. one recipient in the “To:” field will stimulate a response better than having multiple recipients e.g. 1 recipient = 100%, 2 recipients=50%, 3 recipients=30% and so on).
Summary for effective project recovery
I have not attempted to detail project management procedures given there are excellent articles to be found in the https://projectmanagers.org/ website. Rather, I have tried to give some insight into the dynamics between participants involved in managing projects. I hope the reader appreciates this perspective. While I offer no formula or template, I do offer a focus on the following key areas I have learned over the years do deliver results:
Manage by objectives
Manage your project by objectives as opposed solely by deadlines. Of course deadlines are important, but that is what they are: Deadlines – an event in time. Setting objectives for individual participants of the project demonstrates your interest in them and aligns their contribution to the deadline and the projects as a whole – they become not your deadlines but our deadlines.
‘Worthy but dull’ is probably not the accolade one seeks in today’s ‘driven’ workplace. A Project Manager that is consistent, predictable, and remains a ‘constant’ for the less experienced tossed about in the turbulence of swift moving projects is worth his/her weight in ‘gold’.
Communication is much more than just speaking. Do they understand your words and concepts? If you pose questions, test understanding, and adopt a ‘No one can ask a dumb question stance’, there will be less chances that anyone will do anything dumb.
Research in other fields has demonstrated an immediate improvement of around 30% in performance can be achieved in light of feedback. Make feedback routine and you will be less likely to have to get your project ‘back on track’ in the first place.
Harness ‘Peer to Peer’ relationships
Peer to Peer evaluations are non-threatening and encourage dialog and ideas. The first person I exclude is myself unless invited by the peer group. They get enough of me on the more formal stage reviews. Peer to peer groups are probably the best reason why people avoid letting ‘team mates” down.
Maintain the vision, encourage feedback, and extend the project event horizons. No one likes surprises – well not on projects anyway.