No project manager likes to be on a failing project or to take over a failing project - unless they like the Superman complex of coming in to try to save the day. But it's a reality of the project management profession ... more projects will fail than succeed. Various surveys have found that anywhere from 50-75% of all projects fail to some degree ... either based on some degree of budget failure, schedule failure, customer satisfaction failure or just simply the inability to deliver on the planned solution.
What we must do, then, is plan for how we will deal with issues and risks on our projects and have some key strategies in place for turning around those projects that seem to be heading south fast. While the specific ways of fixing a failing project will depend on the actual issues at hand, I've found that three general, innovative strategies can be followed with a good degree of success in helping the project manager get to the heart of the issues, improve their situation with a dissatisfied client, or get the cooperation needed from those involved on the project to get the project back on track with varying degrees of cost and effort.
Retrace your steps. When issues are encountered - especially potential show stopping issues - I find that it's always a good idea to retrace my steps. Of course I mean that figuratively. But I find it very helpful to go back to the beginning of the project and review status reports, schedule iterations, decisions that were made and any scope changes and try to pinpoint what got us into the troubling position where we now find ourselves. If we are uncertain of the cause then this may help us to figure it out and hopefully identify a solution...or at least a reasonable set of actions to get us back on the right track and save the project.
Call out for advice. Some project managers and others in higher leadership roles think crisis time is the right time to bring in outside help. And by outside, I mean way outside. While that has been profitable for me as the outside consultant called in to save ailing projects and organizations, I don't recommend it as anything other than a very last ditch effort. Why? Because it is so costly and sometimes it may not be beneficial. Rather, look to the resources you already have within the organization...some subject matter experts (SMEs) who aren't part of the project but can be available to provide advice, input, spot expertise or mentoring to existing project staff at little or no cost to the project. And certainly far cheaper than the minimum $30k you're going to spend bringing in an outside consultant, getting him up to speed, and having him interview every project stakeholder to get a 360 degree view of the project before he can really start any productive work. And that's all billable, of course.
Replan. This process is painful, completely ruins momentum, and can be very costly. But it may also be the only thing left if the decision is to still try to save the project. It involves going back to the planning phase and revisiting requirements. Not at a high level...that would be part of the 'retrace your steps' process most likely. No, this process involves a very in depth look at requirements and likely some significant replanning, re-scoping, and probably restructuring (personnel included) on the project in order to restart any forward progress. This will be a timeline and budget killer...it's almost like starting a new project or starting over in a sense. But it may be your only hope.