Project Rescue

You can’t please everyone, but I’ve always felt you cannot ultimately lose if you give everything you try 110%. You’ll always learn something useful, even from a failure, that can be applied to the next challenge or project.
Mark Ryan

The Problem

Project failure

The project is not running well. The evidence is there: milestones are not being reached on time, financials are starting to stretch, the risks are starting to increase, the governance bodies are challenging and showing frustration and impatience.

On top of that, your team culture is deteriorating, the blame game is in full swing and your stakeholders are either aggessive, defensive or just not playing ‘ball’.

Who will you call?  Hopefully not GhostBusters.   You need the skills of a successful project delivery partner / coach to help get back on track and perhaps apply a bit of mentoring to your embattled Project Manager.

For a successful project rescue it is vitally important that there is openness and transparency, and that the process is not a witch hunt or to find a scapegoat.

It is especially important for senior executives to communicate to the team and all stakeholders (including vendors and suppliers) what is happening, why a review is taking place and their specific involvement.  They should explicitly ask that participants provide honest feedback without fear of prejudice or reprisal.  If we experience any of this behaviour then the project rescue exercise will be suspended.

Defensiveness, fear, whispers and gossip will all add further stress and unpleasantness and even hasten the failure of a project that is already struggling.

Key factors to getting back on track

Our years of experience has taught us that there are two places to focus your attention to obtain the best chance of getting back on track: People and Risk Management.

Sometimes the tools and methodologies are just not enough.  They provide rigour for  the project, for sure, but not the insights.  They don’t tell the story, the true history, the dynamics of the team, nor what gut feeling is telling us.

Team upproject rescue

Our approach requires us to firstly get the Sponsor, Senior Responsible Officer /Sponsor, Senior User, and Governing Body members on side.  Discuss the project, its purpose, expected benefits, constraints, and so on.

In fact, all the things that should be in the Project Management Plan; except that we are not just reading a document we are engaging the stakeholders.

Let them do most of the talking in the first meeting. The meeting is not a chance to bag out the incumbent PM or state how the documents are incomplete or simply rubbish, and puffing our own feathers.  Stakeholders will know the quality of the service when they see results.

Next, we meet the team.  We discuss their strengths and talents – using Team Dynamics to gauge the fit of each team member to the role they have been assigned.

At this meeting we share the discussions held with stakeholders, clarify objectives, listen to concerns, and set immediate actions; not for the whole project, just for the next few days providing some breathing space while we delve further into the troubles.

Above all we are empathic listeners to understand what is NOT being said, as much as what IS said!

Risk down

A project, or any activity has risks.  The challenge is trying to identify the risks and deal with them before they become issues. Not many PMs actually understand risk, focusing only on the project impacts rather than the impact to the business, the diluting of benefits, impact on other projects, or missing market opportunities.

We identify risks using a simple method:

  • There is a risk that…..
  • The risk is caused by…..
  • The impact of the risk is that….

We start there and fill in the treatments and such like later.

Across the artefacts

project failureOnly after we have built some relationships and spent time with the key people to really understand the culture, concerns and current situation do  we look at each of the project artefacts.  What we are looking for is the story they are telling.

The first review must be across the plan, then the progress reports, then the schedule, then the financials.  Lastly, we will look at the current outcomes and products that have already been delivered.

The project plan is the foundation for stakeholder meetings and is the primary communication vehicle for managing the project.  The schedule will highlight bottlenecks and areas where progress has not been so fluid.  Risks will emerge from these reviews.

Rectifying the project may be costly and may require courage on the part of the sponsor and senior accountable executives.  This is the time to review with the stakeholders what can be achieved within budget.

If the project cannot delivery then options will need to be discussed such as phasing the project, de-scoping, finding alternative suppliers, and even closing the project down or at least implementing a restructure and realignment, which may result in scope cuts.

Once the team is on board, and armed with a new Plan, Schedule, and Budget the project can continue as if it were a New Project.  The first step then is to re-invigorate the team and make sure there are strong team dynamics again.

You shouldn’t be afraid of failure – when something fails, you think, ‘What did I learn from that experience? I can do better next time.’ Then kill that project and move on to the next. Don’t get disappointed.

Niklas Zennstrom

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