Project Management

Derailed projects: Building an assessment plan

This series helps even experienced project managers recover troubled projects. Here's a structured process you can use to assess the situation.


To rescue a failing project, project managers need to gather a detailed assessment that depicts the current project status and then set a course for corrective action. The plan is then attached to an assessment charter that helps guide the improvement process. The following tips can help you craft a recovery plan that not only identifies the problem but also helps put the solution into play.  

Assessment and recovery team
Remember that in this series on getting derailed projects back on track, we are dealing with an external assessment and recovery team. The assessment sponsor is bringing in outside help, and this team is going to take over assessment and recovery project management. The assessment leader will be the new project manager throughout the assessment and recovery project.

Project recovery: A four-part series
This is the second of four articles dealing with recovering derailed projects. Part one of the series covered structured methodology to assess troubled projects. Part three will look at developing and executing a recovery plan. In part four, the author will look at strategies for keeping projects out of trouble in the first place.

Overview of the assessment phase
The main objectives of the assessment phase are:
  • To determine the current status of the project.
  • To determine the corrective actions needed to bring the project back on track.

The project’s characteristics (size, technology, strategic importance, complexity, and political environment) will affect these objectives. To achieve an accurate project status report, you need to fully identify the parts of the project that have been completed and the work packages that are pending, including the work required to repair the defects. Keep in mind that most derailed projects do not have an effective project management information system, which integrates scope, cost, schedule, and deliverables’ information. But this information is needed to build the recovery plan. In this phase, subject matter experts will be needed to help meet these objectives.

The assessment phase should be managed as a short project and assigned a standard project lifecycle (see Figure A).

Figure A
The major phases and deliverables in a project recovery plan


In the following sections, we will discuss the objectives of each deliverable, with an overview of the processes that we need to follow in order to prepare them.

The definition of the assessment charter
The main objectives of the assessment charter are:
  • To formally announce the existence of the assessment and recovery project to the organization.
  • To provide assessment and recovery lead with the proper authority.
  • To complete activities necessary to develop an assessment plan.

Figure B
An overview of the process for defining the assessment charter


The charter includes the following steps (see Figure B):
  • Defining the mission with the sponsor of the project "assessment and recovery" to complete the charter from the perspective of the sponsor
  • Understanding and being sensitive to the project history to uncover hidden issues, theories, and other factors related to the reasons for the trouble on the project
  • Establishing initial contact with the project team to make sure that everyone involved agrees on and is committed to the same objectives
  • Answering these questions: How are we going to develop the assessment plan? What activities do we need to develop the assessment plan and how long will it take? What resources do we need to conduct the assessment? What data do we need to conduct the assessment and how do we get it?
  • Completing the assessment charter and getting approval from the assessment sponsor

The development of the assessment plan
The main objectives of the assessment plan are:
  • To guide the assessment process in order to achieve the objectives of the charter.
  • To enable the assessment team to perform the assessment in the shortest period of time possible.
  • To ensure that accurate findings are produced.
  • To minimize project team distraction.

The steps involved in developing the assessment plan include:

Setting the correct tone with the assessment team: The tendency is for the assessment team members to think that the current project team members are incompetent. This is not necessarily the case, and the assessment leader cannot allow that tone to prevail. The tone must indicate that the assessment team is here to help, that the team understands how these things happen, and that the team is not here to lay blame but rather to make recommendations on what to fix. The project team should also brief the assessment team on sensitive issues such as litigation, personnel turnover, customer mindset, and confidentiality.

Building a solid understanding of the project: Here you begin to formulate hypotheses. You should review the following critical documentation during the assessment:
  • Project charter, if applicable, and objectives
  • Estimation and pricing details
  • Project plans and status reports
  • Project metrics and project processes
  • Statements of work or equivalent
  • Signed external agreements with internal organizations
  • Project organization charts
  • The project control book, which usually contains all available documentation

Drilling down on the details: The assessment plan is highly affected by project size, complexity, and domain. The plan must include:
  • Focused objectives
  • Work breakdown structure for conducting the assessment
  • Resources for assessment
  • Risk and problem management
  • Schedule
  • Tools for each task
  • List of deliverables
  • War room needs
  • Kickoff meeting details

Getting the sign-off: The assessment team leader will complete the assessment plan and request and get approval from the assessment sponsor before starting the assessment.

Conducting the assessment
The main objectives of this part of the assessment phase are:
  • To determine the current status of the project.
  • To identify major threats, opportunities, and problems.
  • To begin to consider recovery overall.

Figure C
An overview of the process for conducting the assessment


The assessment should consist of the following steps (see Figure C):

Document identification: You should identify all the documents and files required to conduct the assessment. You will store these items in the war room, which should be set up before the assessment team arrives.

Team identification: The assessment team will most likely have expanded in size since the assessment planning. The assessment leader must remind the assessment team of the purpose, objectives, and scope of the assessment.

Kickoff meeting: All parties involved should attend the kickoff meeting, including the sponsor or whoever called or requested this assessment, the entire assessment team, the project manager, key project team leaders, anyone who is on the interview list, and anyone upon whom the assessment team may depend. This meeting is part of building an extended team that, most likely, will carry forward into the recovery. In addition, key project area leads should present project overview data.

Individual meetings: Assessors meeting with each person as identified in the assessment plan and agenda.

Data analysis: Analyzing project data is the next step. This analysis should include but is not limited to:
  • Project charter and objectives.
  • Estimating and pricing details.
  • Project plans.
  • Project metrics and project processes.
  • Statements of work or equivalent.
  • Signed external agreements with client and subcontractors.
  • Signed internal agreements with internal organizations.
  • Management approvals where required and appropriate.
  • Risk management, control plans, and status.
  • Financial management, control plans, and status.
  • Schedule management, control plans, and status.
  • Communication between client and project manager.
  • Scope management, control plans, and status.
  • Change management, reports, and tracking data.
  • Resource labor logs, reports, and tracking data.
  • External and internal correspondence.
  • Copies of deliverables and customer acceptances.

Conducting SWOT analysis: In this phase, you identify, analyze, and rank threats, opportunities, and problems.

Completing the assessment report: This phase includes updating the assessment sponsor. Based on the recommendations, the assessment sponsor needs to make a decision about whether to terminate the project or proceed with the recovery.

The assessment phase is like a short project, and it consists of a standard project lifecycle: concept, development, execution, and closeout. The assessment charter is the main deliverable of the concept phase. The charter will ensure that everyone involved is committed to the same objectives. The major deliverable of the development phase is the assessment plan. It should include all the basic components of a project plan. The major deliverable of the execution phase is the assessment report. It should include the results of the assessment such as ranked threats, opportunities, problems, and recommendations. The assessment leader has to obtain approval, commitment, and sign-offs before proceeding to the next phase.

Next up
The next article in this four-part series will discuss the recovery process in detail and focus on executing your recovery plan.

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