How to Recovering a Failing Project

How to Recovering a Failing Project

Insights | 31 January 2019

Project recovery is the act of saving a failing project from loss and “restoring it to usefulness,” according to the Project Management Institute[1]

But how does recovery happen? According to experts, it is not easy, but it can be done.

Start by re-focusing on the fundamentals. Dig into the root causes. Understand when a project can be saved and when it can’t — or shouldn’t.

Here’s what you need to know when a project goes off track:

Understand what project recovery is (and isn’t)

Project recovery isn’t about a fresh coat of paint or swooping in to “save the day.” It’s a complete renovation. A successful project recovery plan must force a fundamental shift in thinking and operating. Prepare for resistance. Every step must be managed – there will be no room for cruise control.

Understand the root causes

In most cases, there won’t be one single cause of the project failure. Often, experts say, it’s a constellation of issues, ranging from technical challenges to unclear requirements; “methodology weakness or misapplication.”[2]

Harold Kerzner, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Systems Management at Baldwin Wallace University in the U.S. and the Sr. Executive Director for Project Management at the International Institute for Learning, Inc.[3], offers a more structured approach, writing that all root causes of project failure can be traced back to three categories:

  • Management mistakes
  • Planning mistakes
  • External influences

Take the time to understand the root cause, it can help you form the best possible solution.

Break it down to build it back up

Project recovery strategies need to be data-driven, human-centered and above all, thoughtful. They do not need to be complex.

Be sure to launch one-to-one discussions or interviews with those closest to the project. The Project Management Institute recommends interviewing all relevant stakeholders to (at minimum) gain their “understanding in terms of expectations, issues, and risks.”[4]

Consider the costs

When projects falter, corrections can be expensive, Kerzner writes[5]. This means a clear focus on return on investment. “The ultimate goal for recovery is no longer to finish on time, but to finish with reasonable benefits and value for the customer and the stakeholders.”

Plan the plan

All great project recovery plans leave nothing to chance. The PMI recommends a detailed five-step process[6] to get from failure to fitness:

  1. Define the charter. This includes understanding the history and bringing a recovery team together.
  2. Develop an assessment plan. The PMI recommends a high-touch approach here. Thorough documentation will be necessary.
  3. Do the assessment. Remember, in some cases, the right answer will be that the project is simply unrecoverable.
  4. Create the recovery plan. If the project is deemed salvageable, this is the next step. A recovery plan will not look like a normal project plan. And the PMI is unequivocal on the end game: A recovery plan “must not fail.”
  5. Conduct the recovery. Success here will need to be painstaking. Goal: “getting the project to steady state.”

In a four-part series on project recovery, TechRepublic advises[7] keeping an unblinking focus on some key areas as your recovery plan unfolds, including “resolving project issues” and “rebuilding the project team” to “re-establishing stakeholder confidence.”

Understand the risks -— but be open to the rewards

One aspect of project recovery that can sometimes get overlooked is morale. Writing in the Australian Institute of Management,[8] Founder and Managing Director of the Australian Charity for the Children of Vietnam Alison Vidotto, recommends understanding positive lessons can still be learned in any crisis, especially when it comes to people.

Recalling the Brisbane floods that hit only a week into taking over a new office, her staff stepped up instantly.

“It’s interesting to observe how people react to a crisis,” she writes, “sometimes it’s in a way you least expect. Give your staff the opportunity to be involved in assessing and handling the situation and observe their behaviour. Removing standard organisational structures can bring a few pleasant surprises, and a few not so pleasant. You will gain an insight to your employees that only a crisis situation can provide.”

Socialise the solution

A project recovery plan presentation is essential. Focus on getting ahead of the troubled narrative and take ownership of the solution.

Avoid any hint of blame, says the TechRepublic series[9]: “Limit the discussions and findings to project issues, not what happened or by whom.”

Learn from others

No one enjoys admitting defeat, but it happens. In the end, it’s not about how perfect the project is, but how well it delivers on its promise to the business, no matter the bumps along the way.

Stay positive, stay smart and soon project recovery will be a skill you can pull out at any time.

Don’t mark your own homework. Contact us today to arrange a project health check to keep your projects running smoothly. +65 6818 5771.

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