It’s a fair bet that few businesses have been spared the scale and speed of change or uncertainty resulting from the impacts of COVID-19. As the road ahead remains opaque, should organisations be stress-testing project fundamentals?

Ask anyone who has worked in project delivery for long enough and it’s a guarantee that there will be a war story – or few – about what it’s like to walk into a project that is fracturing at the stress points or already at the brink of failing.

The signs of pending failure are usually there: scope creep, cost overruns, missing delivery milestones, poor team morale, absent stakeholders, and budget blowouts are just some of the red flags that point to a project’s potential to fail.

Pulling a project back from what looks like a certain failure and getting it back on track is not for the faint-hearted. Like so many things in times of trouble, sometimes it’s essential to refocus on the basics – the 101s as we tend to call them – and tightly zero in on what’s critical for the project’s outcomes.

There are four critical questions that project leaders and stakeholders before embarking on a rescue effort and getting the project back on track to success.

Question 1Do We Know What Success Looks Like?

Sitting within a project that is under significant stress can ignite the initial ‘fight or flight’ response in all of us. It can be the prompt for a deep dive into the weeds, such as the schedule, to see where we can make up time or look hard at the dependencies that can be delayed to help the team re-establish the baseline and bring the project back to green.

While this might be a logical starting point, it is not the most constructive response from a project manager or a stakeholder. A more experienced project practitioner is likely to step back and assess the situation to determine whether the definition for the project’s success is still clear.

It’s not uncommon for projects under duress to lose sight of the common goal that was established for the project and that’s a significant challenge. Each and every member of the governance and project team must be able to recite verbatim what ‘success’ looks like for the project.

Without the ability to validate that everyone is on the same page and able to pull in the same direction, the project team will simply struggle to get through the storm. The experienced practitioner will look for ways to bring everyone back to the table and refocus the team to achieve success.

Once the focus on success is clear and agreed, the next step is to revalidate the scope of the project.

Question 2 – Are we doing everything necessary to deliver on the success?

This is a critical question that the project manager needs to be able to answer. As they explore the issues relating to the project, it’s essential to revalidate that the scope can deliver the promise.

It may become clear that there are work packages that deliver on ‘nice-to-have’ requirements that, in the wash-up, do not add any material value to the success of the project. That is not to say they should be ignored, but the opportunity may exist to deliver them incrementally in a business-as-usual mode rather than via the project.

Removing such deliverables from the critical path enables the project team’s energies to be focused on delivering only the most crucial activities within scope.

Question 3 – Are we listening to the right voices in the team?

It can be incredibly difficult to ignore the noise in a project to refocus on governance as a barometer for staying on track. When the PM and the team are under sustained pressure, then there will be a lot of noise being generated around the project, often from mid-tier management, related projects and field staff. PMs need all their energy to stay focused on the task at hand. But who should they be listening to and why? The answer to that question is simple yet difficult. The focus should be on governance and project process rather than wasting time or unnecessary energy on responding, defending or even attacking noise that, frankly, does not contribute to the project’s success.

Experienced PMs check in with their SteerCo and sponsors regularly to focus discussion on success and what will enable the team to succeed – and call them to account when it looks like support for the project has gone astray. If they don’t provide the support needed, then the question must be asked: Does the business really want to do this project?

A PM – nor their team — can’t do it for them in isolation.

Question 4 – Are we really leading our teams toward success?

Leaders are born in times of crisis. When a team is looking for direction, a safe place and a common goal, it’s vital to not lose sight of the fact that the team is impacted by the noise and often without the full situational context.

Project leaders need to communicate well and often, while inspiring, challenging and encouraging the team, be cognisant of the emotional challenges and frailties that will no doubt exist.

This is where a project leader’s soft skills are critical. Should the team be a blend of resources from multiple segments of the business, a successful project leader will:

  • Take a single team approach to achieving the success stated in Step 1
  • Maintain an openness and no-blame culture
  • Adopt the premise that everyone wants to succeed and that we have a shared definition of what success should look like

This approach will encourage team members to speak up and contribute because they feel it will add to the success of the project.

It will also help the team to ‘listen’ and reframe their responses into the overall context of the project. People generally understand that what may be in the best interest of one may not always be for the greater good when context is added to the explanation.

Go Back to Guiding Principles

Project fundamentals are a valuable way of mitigating the risks that can creep into inflight projects.

There are many permutations of these steps, however, it’s the guiding principles that project leaders must focus on in times of crisis or profound change when they recognise that a project has serious deficits that need to be addressed in order for it to succeed.

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