How do well do projects run in your organization?  Are they just trotting along happily or are there a number that are “troubled”? And, if they are indeed troubled, just how much are they actually costing your organization? There are many statistics available. PM Solutions Inc. conducted a survey in 2011, and in a list of projects valued at over $200 million, those claimed to be at risk of failing were valued at over $74 million.  Undisclosed were the projects that were in the process of being salvaged and those that were being pushed through, regardless of time and budget constraints.

Failed projects do greater damage than costing a lot of money without achieving the desired results – they leave a huge negative impact on the project team which, in turn, spills over into the customer environment and the internal organization.  Staff morale takes a hit and team performance suffers.  Troubled projects also have negative financial implications due to extended costs, overtime, stress leave, loss of good will and reputation and even employee turnover.  Often, these costs go unseen initially, and then erupt when not expected – weeks, months or years later.

So now what?  How do you deal with troubled projects? It is critical to identify a project that is in trouble before it hopelessly spirals out of control, destined to total failure. Through the projects that I’ve managed, assessed and reviewed, I have compiled a number of lessons learned.  In fact, I have a “Top Ten” list of symptoms of projects that are spiralling out of control, diving into trouble, or heading towards probable failure.  Do you see any of these symptoms in the projects that you are concerned about?

  1. Low team morale
  2. Consistently missed milestones and deadlines
  3. Incomplete or low quality documentation
  4. High defect rates or high numbers of change requests
  5. Unresolved issues and lack of corrective actions
  6. Unstable requirements
  7. Stakeholder loss of interest or participation in the project
  8. Unreported problems
  9. Defensive attitudes and lack of trust in the team
  10. Unhealthy team conflicts

Not too bad a list, I suppose. Well, except that these are only the symptoms – not the root cause.  They tell a much deeper story to the astute observer and an immediate assessment of the issue is needed to uncover the underlying problems and eliminate further concerns.  As can be expected, a plan needs to be developed and implemented.  Key points to consider should include:

  • The assessment should be led or conducted by an individual who does not have any emotional connections to the project.
  • Those assessing the project need full and open access to project materials and personnel.
  • Documentation needs to be reviewed with interviews and surveys conducted as necessary and a root cause analysis needs to be performed.
  • Be careful not to chase the symptoms but to focus on identifying the root cause (more easily said than done!)
  • Intentions and actions need to be clearly articulated to stakeholders during the assessment.

Once the assessment is completed, document the plan and follow it carefully. Communicate intentions clearly to the recovery stakeholders who have an interest in the project’s success.  Keep a careful watch on the recovery plan and follow it meticulously to avoid the need to rescue the rescue effort!!

Managing the project team is crucial to a proper project recovery effort.  A cohesive team is essential to move things forward. Blame is not a welcome participant in a recovery effort – especially that which is not warranted.  To err is human – empowerment of the team is a recovery tool.  Unnecessary focus on past errors and omissions will erode the progress needed in the short term. I like to refer to a good recovery leader as a Rescue Project Manager.  This person is a mentor and a coach to the team, guiding and directing them towards the newly established success criteria.

A troubled project can affect everyone involved, but it does not need to be the focal point for a team or the individuals on it – especially when managed properly. Behind every troubled project is a troubled team, individuals struggling with being associated with a “sinking ship”.  Step up – be a Recovery Project Manager.  Show the team the respect that they deserve and coach them to success!

Brian Munroe is a qualified and experienced project manager who has been working with IDS since 2005.  He has published numerous articles and speaks frequently at project management forums and conferences. He is the senior project manager at IDS Systems and is involved in projects locally at our home base in Ottawa as well as throughout Canada and the United States.  For more information on how we can assist your projects – troubled or not! – contact Brian at