Help…my project is a disaster!

The call usually comes on Monday morning just past 9 am. Young project managers tend to take the preceding weekend to work through their options. They spend two troubled days at home, snapping at their families, unable to relax, enjoy, or even sleep. By Sunday night they are so worried that dinner brings no joy, only a queasy stomach. The wrinkles in their brows tell the story of underlying tensions. Finally, their spouse or partner tells them in a calm, but concerned voice that maybe they need to get some help.

They call on Monday and start by saying something like, “Help…my project is a disaster, and I don’t know what to do.”

I guess we have all been there. Being a project manager is not an easy way to make a living. Young project managers often have it the worst. They are usually insecure in their new role and lack the confidence that comes only from experience and age.

In many cases the project manager is new to an organization (less than 6 months), and a project they have been assigned to lead is seriously behind schedule. The project manager can see the signs of failure: deadlines are missed, calls and e-mails go unanswered, unforeseen obstacles suddenly appear, team meetings are unproductive, and ownership and accountability are no where to be found. What makes it really bad…is that most project team members just don’t seem to care.

I ask about the PMO leadership and the executive sponsor. But, often in large companies where there are competing priorities, some leaders simply don’t have to time to follow everything. In other cases, the leaders don’t have the skills or interest to help. Many live in denial of the seriousness of the problem, trying just to get through the week.

What can a project manager do?  Well, there are some options:

Go back to the basics. Strip out all complexity and focus on the basics of running a project: task, time and resource management. Go to a weekly planning cycle. Give team members a list of what they have to do 1 week at a time. Keep it simple, clear, visible and focused.

Be a menace. That’s right. Armed with a weekly plan, you need to do constant follow-up. Find a way to stop by once or twice (or more), each day to check on progress. If their body language says stop bothering me – keep it up. Eventually, they will do the work if only just to get rid of you.

Have a “Come to Jesus Meeting” with your team. You need to lay it on the line and let your team know how you feel and try to convert them to think and act differently. You start by presenting the facts, which you lay out like a lawyer during a murder trial. You say things like, “In the last 4 weeks, these 10 tasks did not get done. We are 30 days or more behind these major deliverables. Our project costs are 20% over budget. The next phase is waiting on user testing to be completed by person x who is 6 weeks late.” This is not the time to worry about hurt feelings or bruised egos. You lay out facts so the team can see exactly what you see. You try and focus on solutions and gaining commitments to change. You lead them to the water – will they swim or sink?

Invite a +1 executive or key stakeholder to your next team meeting. If your immediate manager or PMO head is neither interested nor listening to you, then invite a +1 executive, manager, sponsor, key stakeholder, or any serious looking suit you can find. Have them sit un-announced through your next team meeting. Sometimes just having a senior presence in your meeting will get the attention of your team.

Fire a key team member. If you have a team member who is not performing, then kick them off your project and ask for a replacement. Why should you keep an under-performer on your team? Send them back to the business and get someone new in the team. This will surely get your team’s attention.

Send up Red flags everywhere. If you company has a project reporting status system, set all the flags to red. I mean everything (schedule, costs, overall performance). Executives usually wake-up when they see projects red flagged. They start asking questions. Once you get their attention you have to be ready with the facts: what is wrong, how far are you behind, why did this happen, how can it be fixed. Ask for their support and involvement.

Kill the project. Hey, the biggest mistake I ever made was trying to save a project that I knew was a loser. If the red flags do not work, kill the project, release the resources, return the funding – let the shit hit the fan. This has got to be better than beating your head against the wall every day.

A lot of what I say above is extreme so you better make sure that the situation is truly dire. Sometimes you can be so close to something that you only see the flaws and miss the rest. But, if the situation is bad, then action is needed…the sooner the better.

Project managers are a resilient bunch. Usually they find solutions and ways to move forward. Failure or the threat of it sometimes brings superhuman powers to people. With the right mindset, and input from an experienced coach or mentor, the survival rate is encouraging. Let’s see who calls next Monday.

Have you faced a similar situation? What did you do? I’m interested in hearing your stories.


About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
This entry was posted in Project Team Management and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Help…my project is a disaster!

  1. Marian Woods says:

    Quite an aggressive approach to take with a failing project, but then again I do agree with your points. When a situation like this arises you’ve not got many other options. I guess the morale of the story is to not get to the point where the above need to be put into action (especially the final 3)

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting Marian. You are right – several of these actions are to be used only when all else has failed. A PM would first work to understand the root-cause of the issues and try and correct them with the team. Also, your project sponsor should be deeply involved at this stage. But, if failure is evident – then you need to take strong actions. Thanks again. DM

  2. Chuck Davis says:

    Pulling in a big hitter on a meeting, ie, executives Director level or above, and having given them a briefing on what you are accomplishing is a big winning strategy. This has worked for me in the past numerous times.

  3. Vidya Majumdar says:

    Dale, right off the bat, I enjoy all you blogs immensely!

    In this post, I really like the first point you make – go back to the basics of project management. In my experience, a considerable amount of complexity around a project stems from extraneous influences on a project – vendor/client dependencies, politics, parallel/co-dependent projects. Those can add unbelievable amounts of swirl to the situation. A well defined schedule, with clear, tasks, dependencies will always help a PM with the ability to predict when escalations are necessary. During a crisis moment, breaking down the what, who, when and how, is a critical responsibility of the PM. Often times a PM cannot come up with the solution. Breaking down a problem, and understanding which resources can help is key. Feel the panic, that gets the adrenalin going, then focus.

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