4 Steps to Getting a Runaway Project Back on Track

Anyone out there ever gotten a project already in the works that seemed like a “train wreck” waiting to happen?

Most of my career has been spent coming into places where I have to take over for someone else. And while I think it’s frustrating, I’ve made a career out of it and an interesting one at that.

Sometimes it’s easy to come fresh into a project and see the glaring things – lack of documentation, lack of communication, lack of organization. But what if it isn’t glaring? Then what? How do you figure out how to keep the train from going off the tracks? How do you get your project to production?

Here are some of the things I do within the first few days if I find myself in this situation:

1) Look for all documentation for the project. Depending on the phase the project is in, you should be able to find all the basics – project charter, project timelines with major milestones identified, scope and requirements and some type of functional requirements. If you don’t find these easily, start asking questions. This information should be available somewhere.

2) Figure out the communication plan that is being used and how the team is currently working. It is important to understand how the team is used to working and whether there are opportunities for improvement. If the style of the team is something you are comfortable with, stick with it. If not, I suggest making some simple changes that will help you get control of the team.

3) Determine the budget and staffing plan for the project and where it is managed. It is helpful to know your team, the size of the remaining budget and the outstanding work that has to be done. Depending on how the company works, it may be easier to use the project number to bill people for their time. This is also something to look into, especially if they are expecting you to track actuals.

4) Start moving quickly. I try not to let my need for appropriate documentation and clarity hold me back from jumping in and getting my hands dirty. I’ve found the more I hold back, the harder it is for the team to build trust. So, I typically jump in and start working with the team. It seems I do better with the project overall, as a result. In the meantime, I start looking for small things to change and do them seamlessly as possible. Once I’ve built trust and rapport with the team, I can start making larger changes with more impact.

2 Responses to “4 Steps to Getting a Runaway Project Back on Track”

  1. I liked this article. It was very informative for me because I am new to the industry. Are project managers replaced or removed from their position often? What would make a new project manager come in the door of a company taking over someone else’s “train wreck” of a project? What’s the worst project you had to “get on track”?

  2. Brad Garland

    In my recent assignments, I have picked up runaway projects that are nearly out of budget on day one. These are tough assignments and take a lot of PM energy to get on top of the situation. I am finding that a level-set assessment with all key stakeholders should be an immediate goal for the new PM. Make sure that everyone has a voice in the real status of the project at that point in time. This is a win-win situation for the PM and the stakeholders. The PM gets the real story from the project artifacts and stakeholders while the stakeholders get confidence that the PM is willing to listen and understand the complexities that led up to the current status.