Project Rescue Tip #2

One of the first tasks the rescue manager must tackle is public relations. The fact that the stakeholders have acknowledged that their project is in need of rescue indicates that confidence in the project has eroded and you need to shore this up in order to successfully save the project. Of course, if your analysis indicates that salvage isnít feasible, or that there is no longer a business case for the project, confidence becomes a moot point. Otherwise youíll need to work to build up confidence in the teamís ability to see the project through fairly quickly so that you garner the support you need to make the necessary changes.

When it comes to project stakeholders there are two groups of stakeholder: the executive sponsor and everyone else. There may be two executive sponsors in some IT cases: the business sponsor and the IT sponsor. These two people have been given the financial responsibility of the project to share more or less equally. Even executive steering committees are not nearly as important to you as the sponsor. The process of building a level of trust and confidence with your sponsor will include communications with the steering committee but these folks are most often peers of the sponsor and re-establishing confidence will be on a personal level between the sponsor and their fellow executives. They will certainly call on you for help but your primary focus should be on the sponsor, not the steering committee. Re-establishment of confidence begins with the executive sponsor and continues with everyone else.

The first question that the sponsor will need to have answered may be: "Can the project be salvaged?Ē In the case where the project has gone so far down the wrong track that back-tracking has become impossible there are two choices: scrap the project altogether or scrap the current plans and work and start over. The question then becomes: is there still a business case for the project? Providing there is one, the second question is: is the work completed to date worth salvaging? Would the amount of re-work required exceed the cost of starting over again?

You need to get this answer to your sponsor as soon as possible because money is still being spent. Every day a project that should be stopped in its tracks is allowed to continue is another dayís worth of budget lost. Balance this need against the need to make absolutely certain that your answer is the best you can provide. This means a quick and careful examination of the work produced against the requirements and quality standards to determine the amount of re-work necessary. If you feel that the use of the phrase "quick and carefulĒ is an oxymoron youíre right; Iím trying to demonstrate the challenge youíre facing here.

One way to balance the two demands is to be very careful selecting the work you will analyze. It should be possible to pick a representative example of the work and extrapolate. If the amount of re-work required to make the sample acceptable is greater than the original effort and cost estimates, you will want to scrap the work and start over. Starting over will mean that the current project will be closed out. The organization may have an urgent need for the products of the project, in which case the new project is already initiated and planning must be completed as quickly as possible while the team either helps with planning or is idle. Otherwise the project will be closed out and the new project will not be initiated until the organization is ready to budget for it.

If the project can be salvaged, the next step will be to re-plan the rest of the work including any re-work that is necessary. This is where the confidence of the stakeholders is critical. The stakeholders must be confident that your plan can be implemented successfully in order for it to have a chance. The sponsor will want to have a new plan for success as quickly as possible for the same reasons they need to know if the project can be salvaged. The first deliverable in your new plan will be a forecast date for completion of the new plan. You need to complete the new plan as soon as possible however care must be taken to ensure the new plan is both feasible and capable of delivering the goals and objectives in the project charter or business case. The simplest way I know of providing a quality plan quickly is to do detail planning for the first month or two and high level milestones for the remainder. High level milestones should be restricted to delivery dates for the major work packages in the project.

Communicating a forecast delivery date for the new plans is only the first step in the confidence building process with your sponsor. Keep in mind that from the sponsorís perspective you are an unknown quantity even if you have managed projects for the organization in the past. Unless you have already established a trust relationship with the sponsor, your experience with other sponsors doesnít count. Communicating a delivery date may calm the worst of the jitters but trust wonít be established until theyíve had a chance to look at the new plans. Keep the sponsor in the loop as you develop the new plans especially if youíve encountered something that could delay delivery. You might also encounter situations where the sponsor has information that will help you with the plans so don't hesitate to ask for that help. Situations which would drastically reduce the scope of the project, significantly delay delivery, or increase budget should be discussed with the sponsor before completion of the plans. There should be no surprises for your sponsor once the plans are unveiled to the rest of the stakeholders. It is especially important to review plans with your sponsor before they are communicated to an executive steering committee.

The project has reached a turning point, providing a decision has been taken by the sponsor to continue with the project. Itís now time to involve the key stakeholders in the decision to approve your plans. Key stakeholders should be identified in a RACI or RASCI chart or a project charter. Work with your sponsor to identify them if they arenít and make sure theyíre identified in one of the project documents for future reference. Thedecision should be made at a Gate Review meeting. The gate deliverable being reviewed will be the new project plans and the resources reviewed will be those necessary for executing the new plans.

Passing the gate, or passing it contingent on minor changes being made, is not the final step in establishing the trust you need to get the sponsor and stakeholders back on board and confident in your ability to deliver. There will be varying degrees of lingering distrust among stakeholders but the majority will want to have the teamís ability to deliver to the new plan demonstrated to them. The status review meeting identified in the newCommunications Management Plan will be your first chance to do this. Youíll be taking a big step forward if the review demonstrates that the team met its targets for the reporting period. Showing that they failed to meet those targets will serve to increase the distrust and infuse the stakeholders with the feeling that theyíre heading towards another disaster with a new project manager at the helm so itís important to set realistic targets for the first reporting period. You may want to set stretch targets for the team to recover as much lost ground as possible for the organization however stretch targets are best left for the latter stages of the project when the team has hit its stride and is performing at peak efficiency. There are two reasons for this: itís important to re-establish confidence in the team among the stakeholders and itís also important to re-build the confidence of the team.

Meeting targets established for the first reporting period is important but it is just as important to report results honestly. Your communications management plan should identify the data the report is based on and how that information is gathered and massaged. The metrics you report should be as advertised. Avoid the temptation to manipulate the metrics to reflect that targets have been met when they havenít. The trust the stakeholders have in the reports is perhaps more important than the trust they have in the teamís ability to meet project goals. Losing that trust will doom your efforts to failure so youíre better off reporting bad news honestly than trying to cover it up.

Team morale is just as important as the confidence of the stakeholders. It usually takes a personal experience to shatter someoneís self-confidence; team morale is a different animal. At the point where an organization publicly acknowledges a project is a failure, the membersí confidence in that team is rock bottom. Youíll need to re-build that confidence and re-build the team. That lack of confidence and the attendant ability to work as a team is the reason that targets for the near term must be set realistically. As you build the team and establish their confidence in the teamís ability you can make project targets more challenging. Productivity should improve with each reporting period. Demonstrating that the team can meet project targets in that critical first reporting period will go a long way to building the teamís confidence up.

Your Human Resources Management plan should set out the steps you intend to take to re-build the team. You may actually be building it for the first time; poor team performance can often lead to project failure and lack of team building activities can cause poor team performance. Success on meeting the first set of targets reported to the stakeholders is the first step and team building activities, the same ones that would be planned for a team on a project not being rescued, should be used to fully re-build team morale.

A sense of ownership of project targets is a means of building team morale and also of ensuring that realistic targets are set. The rescue period is the ideal time to engage those SMEs among the team in the planning exercise; the effort estimations provided by SMEs will be more accurate than those you can provide on your own. There may be a tendency among some SMEs to set aggressive targets to compensate for the feeling of failure and you need to moderate this tendency so that targets reflect the current abilities of the team. Use your judgment to gauge the aggressiveness of the estimates and re-calculate any you think are too aggressive. Validate estimates for work packages with the team member responsible for delivery of the package. No reconciliation will be necessary where the SME is responsible for the package under review. Reconciliation will be necessary where a team member has a major disagreement with the estimate provided by the SME. Use your judgment to determine if the team member is being reasonable. An estimate made for an intermediate or senior resource where the work is to be done by a junior resource is one valid reason for the disagreement. Anticipation of an unplanned demand on the team memberís time is not. Formalize the agreement to the estimate once youíve established acceptance with the team member. The estimate for the work should constitute a formal agreement between you and the team member. You can formalize it by articulating the terms and getting the team memberís verbal agreement. Completing the transaction with a hand shake can serve to further formalize the agreement.

To re-build the teamís morale, or to establish the sense of team, schedule team building activities to occur as early as possible in the rescue. The ideal activities will take place off-site where the team can let their hair down without fear of someone looking over their shoulder. This isnít an article about team building activities so youíll need to do some research on the subject if you arenít familiar with this concept. Look for activities where success is achieved by a team, not individuals. One group activity that can be done relatively cheaply is a story telling exercise. Each team member is given a picture that represents a part of the story. They then must re-create the story based on input from each of the members. Members must verbally communicate the content of their picture and how it fits into the story without sharing the picture so team work is required to piece together the story. The Egg Drop is an exercise that requires at least 2 sub-teams to create a package from simple materials that protects an egg from breaking when dropped from a height. You can make the exercise more or less challenging by placing restrictions on the materials that can be used to create the protective package and altering the drop height. Paint ball is another exercise that can be used. The team is divided into sub-teams and each sub-team competes by eliminating as many of the opposition as possible with paint balls. The team with the most members standing wins. Donít hesitate to ask your HR organization for help even if youíre a consultant; thatís what theyíre there for. Do make the exercises you choose appropriate to the group and the purpose.

Keep morale high by recognizing accomplishments and rewarding them. Individual accomplishments can be recognized by spot awards. The accomplishment being recognized should be something that exceeds expectations: a work package delivered early or help given another team member and still delivering their work on time are just two examples of behaviour that should be rewarded. Once you have the program for individual rewards established you can wait for the team to identify opportunities for spot awards but actively seek out the opportunities in the beginning. Spot awards donít have to be big to work, although they shouldnít be small either. I like to hand out gift certificates for two at a favourite restaurant in recognition of the sacrifices a partner or spouse makes so a team member can work late hours to beat a deadline or help a team mate. You should keep two things in mind when giving out spot awards: the reason for the award should be clear and communicated to the awardee, the team, and the stakeholders and awards must be handed out to deserving recipients consistently. Playing favourites or rewarding someone for the wrong reasons will actually destroy morale.

Reward the team for major accomplishments such as meeting the schedule for the first phase or iteration or producing the prototype. The reward should be something the team can enjoy together but need not involve team building. Golf tournaments are a great way to reward the team (providing your team enjoys playing golf) but arenít good for team building. Anything that gives the team a break from the grind is an acceptable reward. Take the team go-karting, mini-golf, a boat tour of the harbour, or any other activity that everyone on the team can enjoy. Take the team to lunch if budget is an issue; you can improve the impact of the reward by giving them the day off. The reason for reward should be made clear to everyone. You can do this beforehand by announcing a reward if the team achieves a major milestone or produces a key deliverable on time. You can inform the team of the nature of the reward or let it come as a surprise but if you do decide to announce the nature of the reward ahead of time be sure to keep your promise.

The job becomes maintaining trust and confidence once youíve succeeded in establishing it. This is fairly straight forward in terms of results. You and the team have to deliver the goals and objectives set out in the project charter by the deadlines agreed to when the stakeholders approved the new project plans. The reality is a little different. You not only have to achieve the results you have to communicate that success to the stakeholders and the team. To do this you must ensure that the new Communications Management plan provides the stakeholders and team with the information they need, when they need it, and in method they need it. The metrics you use to communicate this information should relate to the goals and objectives in the project charter and include goals in the area of schedule performance, spending performance, quality, product delivery, and service delivery. Particularly important is the status report that you share at status review meetings or steering committee meetings. The status report should convey all the information your audience requires and you should be ready to answer questions your audience may have. Questions are a sign of healthy interest and lack of questions could indicate disinterest or distrust.

Honesty is not only the best policy for communicating project information, itís the only one that will serve your purpose. Reports based on project data should come with a disclaimer that informs the reader or listener of the methods used to collect and compile the information. It should also give them a clear indication of the accuracy of that information. The objective is to provide accurate and up to date information but the tools and time available for the collection and compilation of the data will constrain accuracy and currency.

The identification and management of risks is also necessary to keep the project on track and maintain stakeholders trust. No matter how diligent we are we can always be blind-sided by a risk event we didnít anticipate. Your sponsor and project stakeholders should not hold you accountable for those risk events but the project should have a contingency to address these "unknown unknownsĒ. Risk events that can be foreseen should not take you by surprise. Do your due diligence managing project risk and share that information with the sponsor and stakeholders. The same applies to issues facing the project. The sponsor and stakeholders donít need or want to keep abreast of every issue or risk the project faces but should be apprised of key risks and issues.

Lastly, donít be afraid to use the trust youíve built to overcome obstacles that could de-rail the project again. This is especially so with your sponsor. Trust is like a bank account; once you build your balance you can write cheques on it. Donít hesitate to ask for help from the sponsor or other stakeholders if there is an obstacle they can help you remove; just make sure that you ask them in time for their help to be effective. Donít wait until itís too late to inform them of the problem.

Following this advice wonít guarantee a successful rescue but it can be effective in re-establishing confidence in stakeholders and building the morale of the team. The advice is meant to be followed along with the other remedies discussed elsewhere in the "10 Project Rescue TipsĒ section. Failure to address these two effects of project failure can doom a rescue effort.