Rescuing Troubled Projects

Will Lukang, PMP, CSM, MBA, MASCL

A few weeks ago I received a message from a friend of mine thanking me for sharing my blog.   I was glad to hear from readers of my blog, because I want to know what they think of my blog and how I can improve it.   As it turned out, she suggested a couple of topics, which I will be featuring over the next month or so.  One of the topics that jumped out is rescuing troubled projects.   This resonates with me because I worked on such a project in 2008.  In accordance with the theme of my blog, I’d like to share my experience on managing a troubled project.


In September of 2007 I was approached by one of our senior managers to step in and help revitalize a failed project.   I ask about the background of the project and was told that two prior managers requested to be transferred out of the project and the current manager quit the job.   The project was due by December and at the rate the project was going it was bound to miss its deadline.  I was also made aware that our business users were extremely unhappy about the progress.


As a person from the outside looking in, I was intrigued by the issue.  How could we have two managers ask to be transferred and a third one quitting the project?  What was unique about this project that caused it to be in a state of disarray?  While for most people such a project would be off limits because of the bad impression that comes with it, I was drawn to it because I felt would give me an opportunity to learn something new.  Besides it is my attitude to always try to look for the positive side of every situation.  At that time I was thinking this can’t get any worse and it will provide me an opportunity to learn and connect with others.


When I was first introduced to the development team, my initial thought was to understand their perspective as to how things were and what was going on.   I could sense that there were a lot of frustrations all around.   One of the team leads expressed concern that I would be their fourth manager for the year.    They believed there was inconsistency and a lack of support for their wellbeing.  The overall mood of the team was not good and they were all unmotivated.   The frustration was preventing people from focusing on the possibility of moving forward and there was a dark cloud hovering over their heads.   They also questioned how I could be different from the other three managers that preceded me.    I told them that I was there to understand what was going on and work with them to achieve our goal.

My first meeting with the business users did not go well—as expected.   They wanted to see what we had developed to date, but when we showed them what we had, one of them went off the deep end and told me I had no idea about the requirements.   Truth be told, I really had no idea, being new to the team, but I calmly apologized and explained that I was doing my best to get caught up and it would help me understand how we failed to meet there expectation and what we need to address in the near term.


Here are the steps I took to help the team achieve its goal:

  • Seek to understand the concerns of all the team members – I believe this is the most important thing.  It is like seeing through a different lens and understanding their perspective. I had three team meetings to air things out then I followed it up with one-on-one with everyone.  During the team meeting we discussed everything related to the projects and their concerns.  No topic was off limits.   I did this because I want to get their honest opinion.  I spent about two weeks to meet and analyze the issues and concerns.   I then report back to the team my findings and we discuss our action items to address the issues.
  • Seek to understand why the managers left.  As it turned out, the business user was really hard to work with, but I stayed calm no matter the situation.  I realized that you can’t take anything said to you personally.   If you’re able to keep your emotion in check, you will actually see things differently.  It was not easy, but I knew that was the best way to succeed.  I liken it to the price of admission when watching a movie.  You have to decide if the price of admission is worth the challenges ahead.
  • Meet with all stakeholders to understand what went wrong.  Collect the information and share it with your team.   The team then came up with action items that we executed to ensure we were moving in the right direction.
  • Maintain full transparency and open channel of communication.  Engage people and seek their opinions and make sure they have a say in what’s going on.   Integrity is the foundation of our relationship.  If the people working with us cannot trust us, we will not make any progress.
  • Assess the situation and determine the true current state.   Communicate that to the business and determine the next logical state.  Keep communicating with the business and discuss possible compromise.
  • Reach agreement as to what needs to be delivered and channel everyone’s attention to getting the job done.
  • Provide weekly team meeting to discuss issues.  Be consistent and make sure everyone has an input.
  • Set up weekly business meetings to discuss any open issues and work toward addressing those issues in a timely manner to gain the confidence of the business folks.  In essence, work toward earning their confidence in you and your team.
  • Avoid compromise for the sake of compromising.   Once the scope is agreed upon, the team must focus and work together to get the job done.
  • Mediate and facilitate every issue that comes up.  Do not let it linger because it will affect the team. Conduct brainstorming sessions and make sure to encourage everyone to share their ideas.   Bring issue to the forefront and address it as soon as possible.  Do not hold back information from you business counterpart.
  • As the new manager, you need to provide hope and inspire everyone to continue the project.  How can you do this?  By showing them you’re one of them and you’re not there to just give orders to everyone.  In my case, I helped in verifying requirements, updating the documentation, testing and working alongside everyone to show them that I’m really there for them.


I always remember Henry Ford’s quote, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success.”    Just like the saying, you need to help the team come together and renew their desire to work as a team and deliver.   As the leader of the team, your job is to keep them together by mediating and facilitating any issues that my come up.   It is important to keep communicating.   Share good news and bad news and praise your people for what they accomplish.  The last point is,  if we can keep the team working together, we can achieve greater things.


In the end, we delivered multiple phases of the project and we had fun doing it.   It was the most fun I had working on any project.  We had a sense of camaraderie and everyone felt like a family.  As life’s journey brought me, I was asked to run another project in September 2008.   I still do reflect on the successes of that team and how we overcome the odds and made it happen.   As you read this blog post, what are the things that you can relate with?  Please share your thoughts and let me know what sort of topics are you interested in.



One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s