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A Practical Approach to Fix Troubled Projects

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Post A Practical Approach to Fix Troubled Projects   Sat Aug 13, 2011 12:56 pm


Every project is conceived and executed with the intention of creating a positive influence for the business, whether its goal is to increase profits, cut costs, improve operational efficiency, gain competitive edge and customer satisfaction, etc. As is well known, they often run into problems with seemingly no easy way out. May be the project is way behind schedule, over budget, suffers from quality issues, team morale is low, there is high resource turn over, business confidence is low or for many other reasons. It reached a point where the present situation just cannot continue anymore and your job is to correct it and take it down the path of success. You can't right a wrong unless you determine conclusively what went wrong and what corrective and preventive measures you need to take going forward. This article attempts to identify some problem areas and corrective approaches to undertake in such times.

Problem symptoms

Problems can manifest in many forms causing dissatisfaction among various stakeholders. You need to have a clear understanding of the problems, where and what symptoms to look for without which, it is difficult come up with the right fix whether you do it yourself or seek expert help. Let's review some typical problem areas.

1. Organizational immaturity

o The organization simply may not have the requisite project management setup, experience or knowledge of tools to undertake projects of complex nature. Like a fish out of water.

2. Mismanagement or incompetency

o Vested interests, politics, competing priorities, infighting, lack of cooperation can derail any project or simply, people in decision making roles just don't fit the bill.

3. Improper Solution analysis

o Not selecting the most appropriate solution due to in sufficient alternate solution analysis.

4. Incomplete scope or high number of change requests

o In their unbridled enthusiasm to get the project going quickly, inexperienced managements may jump onto development phase with incomplete scope or affect changes constantly to it in the middle. They may be under the misconception they can add additional requirements as needed. Unbeknown to them, this mistake will cause a whole gamut of changes to all plans later on in the project cycle.

5. Risk management

o Known risks were either ignored or not handled properly.

6. Insufficient planning

o Greater importance given to execution rather than various project management plans either due to lack of project management knowledge or belief.

7. Underestimating work or over commitment on deliverables

o Not enough effort in prototyping, understanding of project specific requirements, objective analysis of organizational capabilities and setting deadlines based on generic analogous estimations can cause havoc with realistic scheduling.

8. Resource knowledge gaps and inexperience

o Results in incomplete solution, high number of issues at each stage and an unstable system. Team members may not have the competency skills to execute the tasks given to them.

9. Breakdown in processes

o Project teams not following established, agreed processes for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of proper training and conviction about their importance or just not disciplined enough to follow them.

10. High team turnover

o Loss of productivity due to high turnover is significant and usually results in severe execution challenges or even complete project failure. This is especially true of project teams mixed with high percentage of consultants who may come and leave at regular frequency in the middle of project. Ill informed managers mistakenly think it just a head count issue. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There are several key skills you look for in an individual to build a successful team: knowledge, experience, problem solving, commitment, perseverance, attitude, communication skills, to name some. It takes significant time, effort and cost to find and get them to a productive stage.

11. Development issues

o Lack of functional/technical expertise, training, common development environment, technology stack, to name some. Developers taking shortcuts and creating redundant software by ignoring published standards cause dual maintenance which is a known common source of bugs. Lack of coordination between Business analysts (BA) and developers during development and unit testing phase. Using informal discussions, rather than formal, approved and signed documents as basis for development. Developers suffering from tunnel vision syndrome, lack overall solution knowledge and cannot do proper impact analysis during design and change requests, there by introducing bugs.

Example: In the middle of an IT project, one of the development teams decided to use a higher version of Java Runtime Environment (JRE) than the rest of teams on their own for some specific feature available in that release without doing a thorough impact analysis, knowledge and approval by Team Lead. This was not discovered until severe unexpected problems surfaced in multiple solution areas during subsequent QA cycle. The Mandatory design changes, coding rework to fix multiple issues pushed out the next release by over a month and caused lot of grief for PMs in re-forecasting future deadlines.

12. Integration issues

o Unit and functional testing done in an isolated fashion rather than in an integrated system environment can cause severe issues which may only be caught later in QA cycle at which point, the cost of fix is much higher.

13. Communication breakdown

o Lack of prompt dissemination about project status, open issues, milestones, and action items will surely cause confusion, loss of confidence on outcome.

14. Solution delivery issues

o Delivered content did not meet approved scope, has obvious gaps due to missed requirements, does not have logical business flow, suffers from poor presentation (user interface), is non-user friendly, has too many bugs, is unstable, does not scale well on high volume data, has poor user response time, installation and/or patching process is difficult or takes unacceptably long time.

15. Insufficient User training

o Users may be confused or unable to make full use of the system due to insufficient training, incomplete documentation and helpdesk causing severe dissatisfaction, negative perception about solution even when it meets the business needs completely as per project goals.

16. Wrong Mindset

o A work culture and atmosphere where mistakes are routinely accepted as part and parcel of business rather than an exception will only result in more of the same. Quality issues and constant rework will throw all well thought out plans off the track.
While the above list contains many common, well known issues with troubled projects, it is by no means complete. Each project may encounter its own unique set of challenges depending on the industry, company, culture, team, etc... A PM should come up with such a list specific to his/her project.

Positive approach

The project may have already been stalled due to severe issues, lack of clarity, poor guidance and direction. The PM should focus all energies on the corrective course of actions quickly and try to create a positive influence on the project and its team. The following lists some helpful pointers in that direction.

• At the top of list to review are project communication protocols, methods and content. It is hard to imagine that people knew all about the ongoing problems and did nothing to correct them. It is time to revamp them.

• Desist from blaming any individuals for the past troubles even when you are fully aware of them. Remember, you are trying to solve a problem, not make it worse. It is time to look to the future.

• Put your detective hat and gloves on and your problem solving skills to full use. Problem detection and correction involves lot of painstaking investigative work and is definitely harder than starting from scratch. You need a different mindset for that. Do not get disheartened easily if you can't get to the bottom of each and every issue the very first time. It's not surprising to find lot of people running for exits because they are not cut out for such a job.

• Take a pause on all those activities considered gone wrong. There is absolutely no point treading down the same flawed path without conducting a stringent, honest review, reassessment and corrective actions. Move forward only when you gain a clear understanding of issues on hand.

• Conduct a debriefing meeting with all stakeholder groups to gather facts, figures, assessment, feedback and perception of both good and bad things that happened to the project. Document the details with reference links and timelines wherever possible. They can be valuable tools when charting future course and whom to contact for help in need.

• Freeze scope and re-baseline it which should include all implemented and pending requirements and approved open change requests. This should encompass the entire scope of work from this point on. This is absolutely necessary and very critical step at project redemption. No ifs and buts, everyone associated with the project must clearly know what is coming out it.

• Take stock of complete vs. pending work and update schedule and all other management plans accordingly. Re-baseline them and get approval and sign-off from relevant stakeholders.

• Do not commit to deliverables and schedule unless you have all the plans nailed down to the last detail and feel you can achieve them without the need for drastic measures. Then, get approval and sign-off from sponsor, business and relevant management.

• Tighten and improve your project control and monitoring processes in the new scheme of things. You must realize that projects just do not go into a state of disrepair without any forewarning or hint and are not very hard to identify if you pay close attention to their smoking signals. They were either missed altogether or ignored by those meant to watch out for them.

• Each identified problem item should have an owner, priority, action plan and a delivery date associated with it. Bundle these fixes in a logical sequence to allow smooth progress.

• Negotiate and get a formal approval and sign-off from relevant stakeholders if an issue cannot be resolved in the current project phase and/or postponed to a later phase. Publish these them to all stakeholders as soon as possible. Do not leave anything to chance, misinterpretation and guess work.

• If team personnel changes are inevitable, as they happen in most cases when a project is under strife, strive to retain the best ones or assemble a team on your terms, if you are given choice. Having a competent, trusted team is half the battle won as your chances of success depend squarely on them.

• One of your most important jobs is to alleviate apprehension, fear and uncertainty from the retained team members. Meet with them individually, if necessary, to ensure it. Your assessment, assurance and calming influence could literally mean the difference between success and failure going forward. Remember, they are not only going help you repair the project, but also act as mentors to future resources that are likely join the team in completing it.

• Try to keep the work place a challenging, yet an open fun environment where people can speak up their ideas, concerns and be empathetic to their needs. If you can do that, you can be assured of their unwavering support for the project.

• Conduct impact analysis to ensure all designs are done within the context of overall solution components before proceeding with development activities. If not well done, you will be left with unintended solution gaps and bugs later on.

• Ensure test plans and scripts will reflect new changes and quality standards.

• When corrective steps are ready for implementation, restart the project at a comfortable pace initially. Allow yourself and everyone to measure results against new expectations, and to fine tune them as necessary before going full steam. Do not rush and repeat mistakes of the past again. Give project team and stakeholders some breathing space and time to adjust to changes. Once they see positive results, they will willingly embrace the changes and pick up pace.

• Conduct face-to-face project status review meetings with various stakeholder groups initially to gain their confidence, acceptance of changes and express any concerns. You can revalidate the necessity and frequency of these meetings as the projects progresses.

• Encourage and acknowledge contribution from all contributing members to earn their respect. They will help you achieve project goals.


No matter what the number or type of problems a project may have, a thoughtful, knowledgeable, detail oriented, committed PM can certainly make amends and lead it to success given a fair chance. No one can argue about the probability of some unexpected problem or issue cropping up; no matter how through the planning phase is, due to changing assumptions, conditions and parameters throughout the duration of project lifecycle. Your approach and how you tackle these problems that decide the outcome of the project.
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