Taking over a failing project is tricky because you start out with the cards stacked against you. Not only are you expected to succeed where others failed, but you have to bring a problem situation back to normal before moving ahead. The client is usually unhappy, and so is the team you’re taking over. These projects tend to have high visibility by the time you get there, so everyone will be watching you.

I should know. For years, I was considered my company’s firefighter. I got all the unhappy clients, and my job was to clean up other people’s messes. Along the way, I picked up some helpful hints that made turning crisis into success a lot easier.

Test the waters
Before doing anything else, quickly assess the situation:

  • Take the time to read through all available project documentation, and find one or two people who can help you determine how closely it resembles reality.
  • Find out who the project drivers are and interview them about their perception of the project’s history and intentions. Ask about their expectations, and get their definition of success.
  • Talk to the team. Learn what they consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, and what they see as their role in the project.
  • Review the code, database, and any other existing elements. Get current status reports on each element.
  • Become familiar with standard processes and conventions. When a project is in full swing, it may be less detrimental to use existing methodologies than to implement your own.
  • Document as you go. This will help you target problem areas and give the client a foundation upon which to gauge your progress.

After completing these steps, you should have a good idea of the problems you face. Next you must find a way to overcome them.

Have confidence in the solution
For most struggling projects, it isn’t necessary or possible to scrap things and start over. The business drivers signed off on a solution, and you must show faith in their decision. It‘s your responsibility to inform the client when a better alternative exists, but don’t be surprised if your idea is dismissed quickly.

Coming in blind, you have no idea what baggage comes with the project. You could easily find yourself in a situation in which money has been invested in a specific solution to a problem. Whether you’ve got a better way or not, you may be forced to follow the plan in hand.

There are exceptions, though. If you’ve been brought on board to get a failing project back on track, you may have more flexibility. But whether you follow your plan or an existing one, you must never waver in your confidence to succeed. If you do, the people that hired you will immediately lose faith in your ability to come through for them, and you’ll have made your life a lot harder.

You have to play the diplomat at all times and do whatever you can to salvage the project. This includes managing the client’s expectations.

Manage expectations
You’ve assessed the situation and are confident you can succeed. Now it’s time to break the bad news. Depending on your situation, you may be faced with a compromise in order to get things back on track. You may have to push deliverables back or cut them altogether, or reassess the timeline.

You’ll have a much easier time getting changes approved if you present the possibilities immediately after assessing the damage. Prepare your client by clearly describing what you’ve found. Outline problem areas. If development is off track in time or scope, mention it. Don’t forget to highlight things that are going well to soften the blow, but be honest about the situation.

Next, offer your solution. Some things to consider when you outline the situation:

  • Don’t present your solution as do-or-die. Make it clear it’s one possible way to get things back on track. You should highly recommend it, but if there’s no give, you won’t lose face.
  • If the timeline can’t be adjusted or functionality compromised and you’re already hopelessly behind schedule, make a timeline highlighting realistic milestones. Share it with the client as an estimate of when things will be completed as the situation currently stands.
  • Be prepared for factors beyond your control that can stymie your progress. Think about what can go wrong with your solution, and try to have viable alternatives ready before new problems arise.
  • Be very careful not to bash the previous project manager. This is unprofessional, and it’s obvious to everyone that he or she has been replaced. If you’re taking over a project, you get the honor of inheriting responsibility for its problems.
  • If the situation is dire, don’t blow it off as no big deal. Stay confident, but admit the difficulty of the challenge. If you offer too much false hope, you’ll be following your predecessor’s path.

Win the team’s trust
Everything about a transplant situation is delicate, including picking up a team in midstride. If you’ve done your homework and aren’t boastful about your ability to fix things, your new team will be more likely to help you make the transition—after all, it’s their project you’re talking about.

Don’t be afraid to ask why things went the way they did or the reasoning behind various project decisions. Also, don’t discount the possibility that team members have been working under a stressful environment and may be somewhat jaded. Be sensitive to the team’s mood.

Find a way to make a smooth transition. You’ll likely be making some changes in procedure, but if you make the team a part of those decisions, the job will be a lot easier. Some managers like to come into a new project and clean house, laying out their own rules and demanding respect, but to me this seems like an effort to alienate your best chance for success.

Put out the flames
When I take over a troubled project, I prefer to work as a part of the team. I’ve found that, as long as you make the appropriate decisions and have a clear sense of direction, your new staff will be more likely to help you turn things around. Be confident, purposeful, and diplomatic in your efforts to smother the flames and get your new team on track.