When a project is in trouble, usually an outside party is
brought in because the problems on the project are bigger than the current
project manager realizes or can handle. By definition, troubled projects have
major problems. In fact, the problems may be too severe to overcome. There are
a number of potential outcomes that could result from trying to rescue a
troubled project.

  • The
    project is turned around and completes successfully (within tolerances). This
    is the best case, but it’s normally not possible. If you take over a
    troubled project that is trending 30% over budget, for instance, you are
    not normally going to be able to turn it around to a point where you
    finish within budget expectations.
  • New expectations
    are set and met. This is a common result of taking over a troubled
    project. New estimates and expectations are set and then the team strives
    to meet the new expectations.
  • New
    expectations are set and missed. This is also a common outcome if the root
    causes of the original problems are not identified and resolved. This is
    actually the worst-case scenario, since the company is no better off after
    the rescue than they were beforehand. It could mean that the money spent
    since the original rescue is all wasted.
  • The
    project is cancelled. Many troubled projects are just cancelled and the
    money already spent is written off. One reason for cancellation is that
    the business return on investment (ROI) projected from the original
    project may not be there anymore at the higher cost of the rescued

The normal tendency for a person arriving on a troubled
project is to jump in with both feet to determine causes and create a plan for
a turnaround. If the project is small, you may be able to do just that.
However, if a project is small, you are not typically going to go through the
effort of a project turnaround.

Let’s assume that the project is big enough to require a
formal project turnaround. Rather than just jumping in, the first thing that
needs to happen is to recognize that the work to recover the troubled project
is itself a project. The rescue project has a start and an end, resources,
deliverables, etc. It fits all of the classic definitions of a project. For a
rescue project, you will have to take the following steps:

  • Determine
    the current state of the troubled project
  • Assess
    the causes of the problems
  • Validate
    the scope of work remaining
  • Make
    recommendations on how to rescue the troubled project by addressing the
    causes of the original problem
  • Validate
    the cost, effort and duration to complete the project under its original
    or revised scope
  • Gain
    sponsor approval to proceed

Once the project has been re-defined, re-estimated and
re-planned (and re-approved), the project manager must focus on the newly
agreed upon work and ensure that the new expectations are met. At this point, a
second failure would be truly disastrous.

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