How to Rescue Troubled Projects


Project RescueLeading projects is a tricky business and things often go wrong. Poor project management is not rare occurrence so troubled projects are all over the place. Your life as a project manager becomes interesting when you are being asked to take over and fix a troubled project.

I have been in that situation several times in my career. I like challenges which I believe is a must-have feature of each project manager, and I actually enjoyed rescuing projects. Management of a troubled project is like dancing on a swinging rope; in some cases you already hang on one hand below the rope. How to get up on your feet and walk safely to the end?

Here are the major guidelines that worked for me when I had to turn around a project which had fallen into difficulties.

It’s now time for exemplary project management

This is the most general advice of all and the most important one. You need decent project management technique to drive a normal project; when things go badly wrong your technique must be brilliant.

Set the Triple Constraint in stone and try to do as little as you can

A troubled project has some blurred baseline – scope, time or cost, usually all of the three. That’s why it is troubled. Your first step is to define what means to complete this project, what are the acceptance criteria. And you really want to do the minimum possible work to get there, not the maximum.

Communicate clearly and extremely well

It is said that a project manager spends 95% of his or her time communicating. This is crucial in troubled projects which can be even a bigger challenge given the fact that many IT projects have virtual teams. We sit on communication, we breathe communication, communication waves the fabric of project reality. Good communication is quite often the mark between success or failure.

Be on top in the political game

Politics played critical role in all projects that I rescued. These projects required extraordinary awareness who is who, who wants what, which organizational levers to pull, when and how. Ability to manage key stakeholders successfully and to ensure you have the authority and power to drive things forward at all times is crucial in troubled projects.

It’s not time to be nice, it’s time to be decisive

Let’s face it – the project you took over is a disaster. You need to fix it. You need to be as efficient as possible. Remove any artificial pleasantries that will take your valuable time and that will blunt your actions. Remember, you are not now selling something or building relationships, you are leading a rescue operation. If you are successful in that everything else will be just fine.

Let me say it again – rescuing troubled projects is challenging, it takes nerve and exposes a project manager to extremes. But when you close your project successfully – something that others were not able to do before you – it is a very rewarding experience.

I have extracted the guidelines above from my rescue practice. They worked for me, they should work for you too.

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