3 Keys to Taking Over a Failing Project

Handing over the keysHave you just said yes to taking over a big mess-in-the-making?

Whether you’re a VP or new manager, whether the initiative is a global expansion or product redesign, you’re now on the hook for a project that’s failing. You have to herd cats who don’t actually work for you, separate the smoke from the fire and figure out what really needs doing, get the team pointed in a fresh direction, make frustrated people cooperate with each other, build the support of skeptics and slackers — and somehow achieve a win while you still have executive support, team attention, budget to burn, and a market opportunity worthy of all this hard work.

You want to be the hero, or at least still on the payroll.
I’ve noticed over the years some smart moves leaders in this difficult situation make:

Simplify and sharpen outcomes
Chances are the project is not failing because of bad leadership that you can supplant with your great leadership. Really. No matter how bad the last PM was, usually the project is failing because it was oversold, poorly designed, insufficiently resourced, and damaged by competing agendas. Bad leadership just let this project drag on in misery longer than necessary.

I’d tackle oversold first. Once you have a firm grasp of the facts – which you need to do fast – job number one is to gain executive agreement to a streamlined set of highly meaningful targets.  Project leads taking over a disaster too seldom think to renegotiate the goalpost and make a win easier to achieve. While this might seem unheroic, making the project achievable is essential to turning it around. Execs often go along with this plan – they’d rather have a smaller win this budget cycle than no win at all.

You could, of course, argue for more resources to accomplish the same targets. Sometimes that works. Often that fails. Execs are reluctant to throw more money into a swamp, the best people aren’t available or don’t want to jump into the swamp with you, and it can be harder to turn around a ship with more people on it. I’m not saying never add resources to a failing project; I’m just saying it often doesn’t work.

By “sharpen” outcomes, I mean get everyone super-clear on the two or three criteria for success. Raise now all those fuzzy “additional benefits” used when the project was oversold, and challenge your leadership to let go of non-essentials. You want to walk out of those meetings with a one-sentence mandate that separates win from loss.

Monitor risks and model healthy paranoia
You will be moving yourself and your team hard and fast. At that velocity, it’s easy to see only what’s ahead of you and lose peripheral vision. Don’t.

Make a point of spending a bit of your time to catalog high-impact risks and put in place monitoring systems. In Rule 25 of my book 42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role: The Manual They Didn’t Hand You When You Made VP, Director, or Manager, I offer a time-efficient process for inventorying risks and prioritizing mitigation steps.

Most crucial to your early-warning systems: your team members’ comfort in bringing you bad news. I advise against “only bring me a problem if you’re offering a solution” especially when you’re moving this fast. Do you really want any delay in hearing problems? Consider a new motto: “bring me any problem, or any potential problem, and together we’ll figure it out.”

Let your team see you ask the hard questions:
– How do we know that?
– What would be a sign that we’re wrong?
– What if that’s true, yet for part of this market/organization/whatever, the opposite is true?
– Whose expertise could give us a different view of this?

I call this “healthy paranoia,” and this is what I mean: your team becomes focused and energized (not scattered or anxious) as they look for signs that key aspects of your environment are changing.

As you right the ship of a failing project, and put her on a smart course, make sure to keep an eye on crucial customers (are they losing patience waiting for a feature?), powerful sponsors (is your VP considering pulling talent onto more promising projects?), key partners (has engineering placed this foundering project lower in their queue?), and competitors and market ecosystems (while this initiative dragged, is an adjacent company grabbing a piece of the action?). Model both confidence and a love of truth to keep your team raising crucial issues and addressing them promptly.

Celebrate mini-wins and sprint to DONE
Any experience you have with Agile processes will come in handy here. You want to make the focus intense and shared, the deliverables crisp, and the cadence of delivery regular and fast.

You want to get this project on the scoreboard FAST. Think about it. Right now, the project has visibility as a likely flop. If the project drags on, people will say, “Yeah, that product isn’t out yet. Not even Fred could fix that one.” By the time you do get a slow-track win, people have forgotten that the messy part wasn’t your doing.

By setting a cadence of high-impact mini-wins, you increase team and stakeholder energy, attract cross-functional/cross-regional partners who were sitting on the sidelines (sometimes with extra budget), and increase the chances of getting to DONE before scope creeps again.

And, you look golden.

For more, feel free to join a webinar I’m doing next Thursday Oct. 17 on this topic. It’s free and just a half-hour. Info here.


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