You may think it sounds bad when you hear that a project manager has been moved off a particular project and reassigned to “other duties.” But you will really feel the pressure if you are the person who is handed the pieces of the broken project and instructed to “turn it around.” Responding to high-pressure situations like this one requires that you remain rational and professional.

As you take over a project, you should watch out for four factors that can make your task even more difficult:

  • The deposed PM may be one of your colleagues or even a friend.
  • The remaining members of the project team may resent how the previous PM treated them, or worry that you’re going to scrutinize their work midway through the project.
  • Since you were assigned this task on such short notice (and it isn’t likely you had input on the original plan), there may not be an ongoing process to manage.
  • The real cause of the project’s running aground may still be unclear.

First things first: Remember that there’s no point in raking over the question of who’s to blame over what happened before you were put in charge. With that in mind, let’s look at a few tips to help you remain calm under fire.

Don’t be a scapegoat
Before getting into the meat of the project (and letting enthusiasm get the better of you), realistically assess whether the project is a “poisoned chalice.” Unfortunately, sometimes people who aren’t thinking of your best interests hand off problem projects.

For instance, I was once tasked with taking over a project that had publicly stalled. The work was done by a senior colleague who took his eye off the ball, resulting in a large overspend and the threat of litigation. Even to my then inexperienced eyes, it was clear that I was given the work so that I, as a relatively junior employee, could carry the can—without undue loss of face to anyone. Although I continued to take flak from the client, I was reluctant to be the fall guy. The end result, although far from perfect, allowed my company to hold on to that client account.

Learn from previous mistakes
You shouldn’t be held accountable for the current mess, but you do need to ensure that the project is “on the mend” once you’re given control. It’s clearly an important project, or else the entire thing would have been terminated. Therefore, view this assignment as an opportunity to shine—after all, you were chosen to turn it around.

Although it isn’t your job to pass judgment about why the project was failing, you can learn from the mistakes that you find, which may include a combination of the following factors:

  • Limited involvement and commitment by senior management
  • De-emphasizing customer and end-user requirements
  • Neglecting to break complex projects into manageable parts
  • Employing poor project management techniques, especially in connection with risk management
  • Agreeing to unclear contractual obligations
  • Failing to keep business requirements in mind

Determine the scope of your task
Now you need to concentrate on understanding the nature and scope of the task at hand; then, you can present proposals on how to overcome the difficulty.

At the outset, evaluate the state of the project. I suggest that you avoid giving any early guarantees about project completion without undertaking a proper assessment and writing it up. It doesn’t matter if this process takes a week longer than management expected. (It’s better to resist the pressure to “get on with it,” rather than jumping in headfirst.) Before moving ahead, it’s crucial that senior management signs off on your documentation about the state of the project.

Be prepared for a period of fire fighting in which the constraints start to bite. You’ll likely work with many team members who’ve been around since the beginning of the project. These employees may be disaffected or even engaged in a low-level war with each other.

You may realize that much of the preceding work is inappropriate or of low quality. This may entail several steps backward before the project can gain net progress. Check to see if there’s a hard deadline specified with the client that holds your organization to the penalty clauses if it’s not met.

Be proactive with damage control
It’s essential to write and circulate a damage limitation plan to prevent things from getting worse. In the plan, you should:

  • Address morale (e.g., state that you welcome hearing the views of your new team and declare a blame-free restart. Also consider renaming the project—it can be surprisingly effective.).
  • Consider whether it’s possible to reach a completely new deal with the client.
  • Compare the state of progress with the project plan and try to maximize the use of existing work completed and resources expended.
  • Achieve some relaxation/refocusing of the original targets and get signed off. The best way to control this restart is to arrange a new milestone meeting after the first two weeks of work. This will give you some breathing space and allow you to define a new, reasonable timescale and project framework for completion.
  • Grab any available “quick wins” in order to boost the project’s credibility.
  • Talk to the outgoing PM if possible. Even though this may be tough, some kind of handover is always significantly better than none.

Once this initial phase of damage limitation work is complete, you’ll have much more control of the process, and the team can resume normal project management conditions.

There is a universe of project management work out there centered on saving projects that have run aground. If you enjoy the urgency that turnaround work involves, you may want to develop this valuable set of skills to draw upon in the future.