Leadership

Replacement project manager must reestablish project ownership

Projects often get derailed when a manager leaves midstream. Project Mentor Tom Mochal dicusses what the incoming project manager must do to establish ownership and get the project back on track.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The problem
Mary, due to the resignation of the previous project manager, is now overseeing the development of a system for the finance division that will allocate IT costs back to the business units. I asked Mary how much information the previous project manager left.

Mary said he left a fair amount of background information, including a project definition and work plan. “However, I reviewed the project definition and talked to some of the team members, and I seriously doubt the project can be completed within the allotted time and budget,” she said.

”What are your major concerns?” I asked.

“We’re two months into the project and already three weeks behind schedule,” she said. “The business client hasn’t been engaged in the project so far, and there is a good likelihood that the business requirements will need to be modified down the road.”

“You also have your transition to worry about,” I noted. “You’ll need to spend time getting up to speed, which will result in more delay. What do you propose to do about your concerns?”

“I hate to do it, but I may need some of the team to start working overtime,” Mary said. “I know it doesn’t make for the healthiest environment, but if we don’t work the hours now, we may never catch back up.”

You have one chance to reset expectations
I suggested that as an alternative, issues management might resolve the problem. When a key member of the project team leaves, the project usually will be affected negatively. This may be an opportunity to re-synch expectations and ensure that project commitments are achievable, given the new circumstances.

“You mean I may not get stuck trying to meet all these previous commitments?” Mary asked.

“When a new project manager comes on board,” I explained, “they usually have one opportunity to reset expectations about the project. After they have been reset, then the commitments on the table belong to you.”

Mentor advice
The project definition acts as a contract between the project team and the customer, laying out what will be delivered, by when, at what cost, by whom, and how. If the project manager leaves the project, the new one usually has one opportunity to reassess where the project is and what it will take to bring it to completion. The new project manager will then be held accountable for the new expectations.

In Mary’s case, it may not be possible for her to meet the expectations established in the previous project definition. In order for Mary to be proactive in both her communication with her team and her management of customer expectations, she should raise this concern as an issue and deal with it now. She should explain the project status relative to the plan, her disagreement with the prior approach, and the lost productivity while she gets up to speed. Usually, given the factors involved, the business customer will allow a new project manager to update the project definition and work plan. By virtue of the revised plan, the new project manager will be held accountable for the new expectations and will no longer have the old project manager to blame for problems.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.


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