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New Rules for Troubled Projects
By Barry Otterholt

To recover a troubled project you must have experience to “see it how it is” and the courage to “call it like you see it”. If you possess these qualities, the troubled project environment may be for you.

In a troubled project, sponsors and other stakeholders have become very frustrated at the lack of results, the mounting tensions, and the looming political embarrassment of being substantially over budget and over schedule. It’s the perfect setting for a select few project managers that have the experience and courage to distinguish themselves from the pack.

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them toward a certain goal.” – Walt Disney

As a recovery expert, you must coordinate the talents of those who work around you and point them toward that goal. To get the needed focus, you must understand the goal, quickly assess the situation, and negotiate a different set of rules by which you will manage the project. Among these rules:

  • Changing leadership – Even good leaders can get tired of the battle. Where you detect leadership that is unable or unwilling to take the needed actions, you need the authority to change them. That includes sponsors and other stakeholders that would be an obstacle to success.
  • Changing staff – You will need solid technical thinking from people that can work together. The most insightful people are often found in the shadows of a project, often deferring to the “vocal minority”. You need the authority to empower them.

  • Changing location – An obstacle to success is the inability for team members to talk to one-another when the need arises. If people are not located in the same area, they will bury an issue because it’s too inconvenient to address it, or actually get up out of their chair and go find the person which takes away much of their productive time. Better to co-locate the team in a troubled situation, so they can merely walk around the partition and ask a question.

  • Changing communications modes – People on troubled projects overuse to email because it’s much easier and efficient, and because it’s easier to have an email barrier between you and other disgruntle team members and stakeholders. You must restrict the use of email where conversations are needed to bring context and collaboration to a situation.

  • Changing utilization – You will find that unnecessary participation in meetings consumes as much as 35% of the team member’s time. By removing them from the meetings, or even eliminating the meeting all-together, you will effectively be giving them back two days each week to get important work done.

  • Changing priorities – You will find a cobweb of conflicting or misaligned individual priorities. You must replace individual priorities with higher level project priorities. You must review alignment of team actions with project priorities often enough that all team members will know they risk being exposed if they don’t align.

  • Changing oversight – In most troubled projects, you will find a lack of management information, and an excess of operational information. You must obtain reliable information about staff performance and project status on a regular basis. This will require changes to work habits, but the payback in making informed decisions is well worth the trouble.

Recovering troubled projects are not for the faint-of-heart. But if you want to gain distinguishing experience rapidly, find your way in to a troubled project.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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