Turning around a dysfunctional project team

Taking over a challenging project is difficult enough. Throw in a disgruntled team, and you have other issues to consider. Tom Mochal offers a member advice on how he could become his company's newest hero and turnaround artist.

Editor's note: This article originally published October 23, 2002.


I recently took over a project from a manager who had been terminated. The project team seems to be doing everything wrong: Productivity is low and many of them don't get along. We're missing our deadlines, and our customers are unhappy and unsupportive. Every team I have ever been on has had problems, but not to this extent. I don't know if the project can be saved. How do I begin to turn this mess around?



It sounds like you're going to have a few challenges ahead of you, and your success is uncertain. You can look at your situation in two ways.

You can consider yourself on a train that is heading for a certain wreck. If you're thinking of the project this way, the best actions to take may be to minimize the damage, see what can be salvaged, and try to keep from having the company throw too much good money on top of what has already been spent. You might be considered a hero in some circles if you recommend canceling the project.

On the other hand, there are project managers that are known as turnaround artists, and they love to take over projects like yours. For many of them, the worse shape the project is in, the better they like it.

Based on your information, it's impossible for me to make that judgment call for you, or to know if the first option is even a choice. The project may be such that it must be completed regardless of the cost in terms of dollars and human relationships. Let's assume for now that you'll try the latter course of action — the project turnaround.

Assess the situation

The first thing you want to do is assess the current state of the project, including the project schedule and the project team dynamics. Your response to the project team's problems will first depend on your progress with the schedule.

If you have 30 days of work remaining on the schedule, you'll have less ability to affect the team. In this case, the best course of action may be to try to motivate the team for the final push, and watch the schedule like a hawk. On the other hand, if your project has many months to go, you need to see what can be done to repair the damage on the team as well as replan the schedule to deliver on a new realistic timeframe.

Although this might not necessarily apply to your turnaround efforts, any plan is going to include the following items.

Communicate well

Have you been on a project where the project manager is a poor communicator? This trait usually results in a miserable project experience for everyone. Teams with poor morale tend to have poor communication channels. Don't let rumors and uncertainty fester. Share as much information as you can about the project status, and anything else that may affect the project team.

Praise and compliment

Another cause of negative morale is poor or no positive feedback or recognition. When people on your team do a good job, make sure they know it. People don't expect money or gifts when they do a good job, just a pat on the back and a "well done" by their manager. Give it to them, both informally and formally.

Set clear expectations

People like to understand what is expected of them so that they know the challenges they need to meet. Give clear instructions when you hand out work so that people understand what they're expected to do. When you hand out work assignments, give a deadline date. When a team member is creating a paper deliverable, such as a testing plan, give them guidance on how it should be prepared.

Don't overcommit your team

As you work to improve morale, you also need to be careful not to overcommit the team. Determine what exactly is required to finish the project, and remove anything that is extraneous or can be done after implementation. Make sure you manage scope tightly, and try to defer all changes until after the original project is completed.

A missed deadline can cause more pressure and degrade morale even further. The opposite is true as well: If the team can start hitting some interim deadlines (and you communicate this fact and praise them), the team morale should improve, which may make it easier to hit your next deadline.


These are some ideas for turning the project around. First, make sure you understand where you are in the schedule, so you know how much time you have to make significant changes. Also make sure you work to identify as many team problems as you can, and the root causes. Then put together an action plan based on how much work and time is remaining on the project.

If you don't have a lot of time remaining, focus on the schedule. If you have more time, focus on repairing the project team, and completing the schedule. There are many areas to look at as a part of repairing damage to the project team. Communication, timely performance, feedback, and clear expectations will be a part of every turnaround plan. Go out of your way to start building some successes, even interim ones. These general ideas, along with others that you will identify, will give you a fighting chance to turn things around.

Who knows, if you're successful and you enjoy the challenge, you might become known as a turnaround artist within your own organization.

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