Almost every organisation is bound to encounter a project that did not go to plan. Statistically speaking, it’s well known that about 70% of projects will fail. When the projects are large, complex and carry higher risk, Murphy’s Law dictates that it will be those ones most likely to hit the rocks. The question when that happens is “how can the project be recovered?”
Imagine a boat about to embark on a voyage into the big blue. There is a slight warm breeze and the water is crystal clear – perfect conditions for setting sail. Now isn’t this how all projects should start? Things are looking good; the project has a great vision, the purpose is clear and there is a pathway forward.
Like a project, the boat has chartered a course, it may have one big destination (or milestones, like a big cargo ship) or many small and iterative stops on the way (like a yacht taking holidaymakers on a sightseeing adventure). Its course will avoid risks like storm cells, rocks, or reefs; there are known resource requirements, like crew, fuel, and rations; and being a sea-faring vessel, it will require appropriately maintained engines and equipment as it undertakes its journey.
However, like any size or type of project – be it waterfall, agile, big or small – conditions can change, or warning signs are ignored when something isn’t going as it should. A case in point: in 2022 the Felicity Ace, a 60-000 tonne cargo ship carrying 4000 luxury cars from Europe to North America ran aground, caught fire, and eventually sunk two weeks later. Fortunately, all 22 souls on board were rescued.
Murphy’s law dictates that when things do go wrong, it’s usually in the most complex and high-risk situations. Thankfully, sea travel doesn’t have the 70% failure rate that is well-known in the project delivery world. If it did, no one in their right mind would board a boat.
However, in both worlds, there are two immutable facts: time, which cannot be stopped or turned back, and money, which cannot be unspent. This begs the question: how can such projects be recovered?
The big issue with attempting project recovery
Let’s go back to our boat example for a second: imagine an alternative outcome.
In this alt-universe, the fire onboard the Felicity Ace was contained and the boat was ‘recoverable’. The fire would have damaged several inventories, so some customers might not receive any car at all on the due date and the ‘project’ would have to begin work on the production of new cars to replace those lost.
The cars in good shape would have been significantly delayed as there would have been additional time and money spent repairing the damage done by the fire, repairing the hull from damage that occurred when the ship ran aground and ensuring everything was ready to continue the journey. It’s possible that the remainder of the voyage would be completed at a slower pace due to damage to the vessel.
The delays are likely to elicit some understanding that things can and go wrong, but those same customers will want to know when they will likely take delivery of their new vehicle. Should the approximately 4,000 customers expect to be able to take delivery of their vehicles on time as originally expected? No, and herein lies the problem.
When a project is “recovered”, it is unlikely be able to meet its original expectations or deliverables. Project recovery involves adjusting the project’s plans, priorities, and budget to get it back on track.
Recovery aims to get the project back to as close to the original course, without losing too much momentum. This approach attempts to minimise the gap between the original and new expectations but comes with a higher risk profile than the reset approach.
The alternative approach: Project reset
As the name suggests, a project reset involves starting over and re-aligning the project scope, budget, timeline, and resources, often against a new approach to the goal. This involves stopping the project to review and resolve past issues that have plagued progress.
It’s not usually a ‘hard reset’ as you might do on an iPhone, where you delete the phone’s history, but a pause and replan that that takes into account work that has been done and can be leveraged, and what needs to be redone or discarded and started again.
A project reset can deliver a new plan that has the advantage of taking on the learnings and experience gathered from the project so far and often enjoys a high level of confidence. This approach also allows for the shedding of underlying issues and root causes that prevented progress or success in the past. However, this is often considered the last resource as it can be costly and result in the work already done being lost. Additionally, resetting a project can significantly disrupt the original expectations, and that poses a range of stakeholder management challenges.
Recovery or reset? Understanding what’s at stake
When Quay is engaged to help a client with challenges in a project, the first question we consider is how much residual value has been delivered and how from its destination the project has strayed.
Returning to our earlier example, the fire that engulfed the Felicity Ace destroyed any potential for residual value as it destroyed the vessel, and its cargo of luxury cars was ultimately unsalvageable. With half a billion dollars of vehicles onboard, even if a quarter of them had been undamaged, you might think it worth it to persist with a recovery operation that repairs the boat and get it to its destination.
However, there is a high risk that repairs could have failed, or the recovery plan would take longer than expected, giving the decision makers enough reason to take the reset approach to ensure that customer expectations can be managed.
Back in the project world, nothing will alienate sponsors and stakeholders more than being told something is a week late, only be told time and time again it needs another week. Sponsors and stakeholders can be understanding when they are clear on the issues or challenges and if a new plan is required, but if it is a confident one, they can take an informed course of action.
Project sponsors and leaders must be able to recognise when a project is beyond recovery and requires a fresh start or new approach that takes into account all the lessons learned. It’s a tough decision to make fraught with the challenging optics and judgement from other parts of the organisation.
However, taking proactive steps to uncover, replan, and rethink a failing or failed projects can enable organisations to improve their odds of overcoming obstacles in future projects that carry the same expectations or are higher risk as opposed to accepting that the status quo of projects always being challenged.
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