Identify the root causes of problems before starting project rescue

Since project stakeholders are often emotionally attached to their projects, you may not get unbiased answers when seeking to find the cause of a troubled project.

If you have ever been on a troubled project, you know that there can end up being many inter-related problems. One of the first things you need to do is assess the troubled project to determine what is going on. This includes talking to many (or all) of the relevant stakeholders involved, including the current project manager, sponsor, key team members, etc.

When you talk to these people you're likely to get all kinds of opinions regarding the problems and the causes. Since many of the stakeholders are emotionally invested in the project, they may have a hard time communicating logically and dispassionately. Many of these problems that are expressed will be symptoms and the project manager must perform root-cause analysis to try to determine the actual causes. Root cause analysis means that you ask a series of "why" questions until you get to the point where there are no more answers.

Let's take an example. You may talk to a client manager, and he or she may tell you that the cause of the problems on the project is poor morale. However, after asking a series of why questions, you determine that the poor morale is caused by the team working too much overtime, which is caused by not having enough resources on the team, which is caused by doing a poor job estimating the work, which is caused by not spending enough time planning the work, which is caused by the client wanting to start the project too quickly.

In the example above, one of the alternatives for the rescue might be to replan and re-estimate the project, perhaps with a reduced scope. This may help you gain the resources required and it may then help morale. (Notice that the root cause may be that the client started the project too early, which at this point, cannot be remedied.)

If there are multiple problems (and there usually are), and multiple root causes, you need to determine which problems are the most urgent to resolve and work on these first. When you are looking at alternatives, make sure you understand the tradeoffs of cost, duration and scope (quality). In many cases, a troubled project will have problems in more than one of these triple constraints. A project that is trending way over budget, for instance, is also probably trending way over schedule as well. The alternatives for recovery should address both sides.

It's important to identify alternatives. That is, you may have an alternative that attempts to bring both budget and schedule back within expectations. However, you may also have alternatives that:

  • Cost even more money and deliver more quickly
  • Complete the project sooner and cheaper with less functionality
  • Complete the project less expensively but over a longer timeframe

If you provide multiple options like this, the sponsor will have more of an understanding of the tradeoffs associated with turning the project around.

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