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Project management: 4 steps to getting things on track

Determine a course of action and ask yourself the right questions

Now is a perfect time of year to reflect on the current state of all the key projects that were approved in January. At this stage, you and your management team should have enough data to know if each initiative will successfully meet its objectives. You may already know there are projects in your organization that are not positioned to succeed, yet they still receive funding and staff.

When you assess the current state of your projects, do you see any of these signs?

* Critical issues keep opening up, but they're not getting resolved.

* Project scope is constantly changing.

* The project is consistently behind its plan, despite efforts to get it back on schedule.

* Competing deliverables are distracting your attention.

If all of the above signs appear, it may be time to cut your losses and cut the project--or at least radically restructure it. You know better than anyone that throwing good money after the bad will not save the project because it doesn't address the root cause of the project's woes.

To determine a course of action, ask yourself the following questions about the project:

* What can be salvaged?

* What can be delivered with the time and budget that are left?

* Do you have the right leadership in place to complete the project successfully?

* Is the plan for the initiative sound and realistic?

* Am I and my management team doing everything we can to support the initiative?

If some or all of the project can be salvaged and delivered on time and with the remaining budget, if the right leaders are present to steer the project, if the new plan is solid, and management will continue to support the project, the following four steps will help you regain control and deliver the revised project successfully. These steps are basic blocking and tackling, but the detail behind the--and more importantly, the execution and focus the project team brings to the effort--will determine whether the project recovery effort will succeed.

1. Assess the Situation

Get as much information about the current state of the project as possible. Use that data to make informed decisions about what needs to happen next. Don't be afraid if, at this stage, there are more questions than answers; that is normal. The key is to ask the right question to obtain as accurate a picture of the project's status as possible. The following questions address key data points you need to collect:

* How critical is the delivery date?

* What functionality is exactly required by the delivery date?

* What has been completed and what is still outstanding?

* How willing will people be to change scope, dates and budget?

The last question about change is critical because it touches on the people and political issues that are present in any project and any organization. Even when faced with sure failure, people find it hard to change unless there is a direct benefit to them and their team. For recovery to have a chance, expectations need to change, especially the key stakeholders'.

When gathering data about the current state of the project, don't forget to ask the current team for their opinions on what went wrong. It can be easy to ignore their input since they're associated with the current failure. In fact, each individual can provide great insight into why the project arrived in its current state. Reach out to key team members and get their suggestions for correcting the situation.

2. Prepare the Team for Recovery

Everyone involved in the project--from executive management to stakeholders to project team members--needs to accept that the current project is broken and needs to be fixed. They also need to accept that the existing project plan and approach to delivering the project is flawed and needs to be restructured. If they don't accept these facts, they will likely resist the steps needed for recovery.

Once everyone has accepted the need to change course, define realistic expectations for what can be delivered given the current state and timeframe. Also establish metrics for success and control of the recovery. If you had metrics at the outset of the project, you may need to establish new ones, or you may simply need to hold yourself and others accountable to them.

Both management and the project manager in charge of the recovery need to develop a supportive environment for team members. Giving them realistic goals and providing them with the needed space, equipment and training will position them for success.

Finally, it's important to take advantage of the new momentum associated with the recovery and to involve all the key parties in the status of the project. This involvement will keep the everyone focused and engaged. It will assure project team members and stakeholders that they're needed for more than just executing tasks.

3. Develop a Game Plan for Recovery

Think of the recovery as a new project, separate from the old one. This new project requires its own scope of work to make the expectations around what is being delivered and the new criteria for judging success crystal clear. The new scope may require you to determine if you have the right resources on the project team or if you need to re-staff some of the team members.

Based on the new project scope, the project manager and project team should lay out a clear and realistic road map to achieve the objectives. The main difference in the plan this time is that it must not fail. It will also be under much greater scrutiny by management. Consequently, it will be critical to make sure there are milestones that are shorter in duration to demonstrate success and to allow for course correction if needed. The shorter milestones will provide valuable data points to determine the health of the project early on.

4. Execute the Game Plan

With the new plan in hand, it's time to get down to business. Remember that during execution, it is not just the project team members who are accountable. Everyone from management on down is on the hook. All facets of the project, from environment to support, need to be in synch at all times, and everyone needs to know they are accountable for the project recovery to succeed.

To make sure everyone is on the same page during the recovery, the project communication needs to be clear, informative and frequent. Clearly define in your communication plan how information will be disseminated, how urgent items will be addressed, and how key decisions will be made.

Given the added level of scrutiny on the plan and the project, being able to provide the latest on the metrics to show the improved control over the project will be key. The data will also allow you to quickly make corrections when any sign of trouble surfaces.

Getting a flailing project back on track is not easy. It requires sustained effort, focus, commitment and objectivity. During the project recovery there is no time for personal agendas. The ability to see and do what is best for the project is required from every team member.

It is also important to not lose sight of the pressure that everyone is under. Make sure there is a positive focus on people. The team needs to have the ability to bond, release a little steam, and be heads down focused on the task at hand.

When the project has been successfully delivered, celebrate and recognize the effort of each and every team member. Finally, learn from this successful project recovery so that you and your organization can avoid having to recover a project again. Pay attention to the warning signs and act swiftly and decisively in order to make corrections early in the project's life cycle so that successful delivery is ensured the first time around.

Ron Ponce is president of Fog City Consulting, a San Francisco-based program and project management consulting firm that specializes in determining and implementing unique solutions for small businesses. He can be reached at rponce@fogcityconsulting.com.

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