Project Management

Damage Control: Repairing Relationships on Troubled Projects

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Categories: Careers, Leadership


by Emily Luijbregts

I often take on the role of escalation manager. I’m brought into projects when things are going wrong. It’s my goal to bring the project back on track and repair the working relationship with the teams and the end-customers to ensure we can have a lasting, productive partnership.

Rebuilding a poor relationship with your clients takes time, effort and sincerity. You need to be able to convince those involved that you’re the right person for the job—that you can be the change they need to see on the project. You also need to be clear with your own management about whether it’s worth the time and effort required.

What’s Happening?

The first thing I do when I come onto projects is talk to the key members of the team and the customer so I’m aware of the conflicts, issues and expectations. This step is the most important—you have to look at the current situation before you start investigating the history

Next, it’s time to look at the wider impact. What’s happening in the organization? Where did the issues arise from? This is where demanding honesty from all parties comes in because you need to understand the environment in which the project has been operating and look at the influences that have affected the project up to this point.

Here are a few common reasons why relationships get derailed, based on some of my experiences:

Poor expectation management

Was a Ferrari promised to your client and you’ve delivered a bicycle? Were the deliverables clear and understood by the customer? A lack of alignment is one of the easiest ways projects can be derailed—and cause a lot of frustration between end customers and the project team.

Resourcing issues

Sometimes it’s the wrong people are on the project. Either they’re not suited to the team or they don’t have the skills to perform the necessary tasks. As an escalation manager, you must have the authority to work with human resource managers to change or bring in different people to achieve project goals. If you don’t have this support or authority, then you need to have the sponsor’s support to train people. You also need to make sponsors aware of the additional time and money required and the impact on the project schedule and budget.

Core issues with the project itself

This comes down to how the project was started. Is the foundation of the project solid? Or are the aims of the project unclear/no longer relevant? Based on your findings, it may be that you need to have a difficult conversation with the sponsor/key stakeholders to stop a project that no longer fulfils the end goals or will be unable to achieve the objectives.

Now What?

Once I fully understand what’s going on, I lay out the next steps, the timeframe of when things will happen, what they can expect/not expect and what I’m expecting from them. As escalation manager, I’m completely honest—about the issues we’re facing, about my role. what I’m able to achieve (and not able to achieve). And, more importantly, I demand everyone else is honest—some of the biggest issues that I’ve seen on troubled projects come from little white lies.

From there, I follow these steps:

Plan realistically. Make sure whatever you’re doing moving forward, you have a realistic plan—and that it was created with everyone’s full support and buy-in of tasks. This can take some time but it ensures everyone is aware of what needs to be done and on what timeline as well as the critical path/dependencies that exist between tasks/work packages/teams.

In this step, I also look at the working conditions of the teams and what’s needed for the project to be a success. In previous projects, I’ve take actions like these to ensure planning remained on track and realistic:

  • Cancel 90 percent of scheduled meetings
  • Create customer war rooms to inspire everyone to work together
  • Bring teams together in one location for a predetermined period of time to work on core activities
  • Allow teams to self-determine how they deliver their work and what their definition of done is

Build a stronger working relationship. In the projects I’ve supported, I try to have a catch-up/alignment session every month to ensure  stakeholders are happy and understand where we currently are in the progress of the project. These check-ins allow me to read how the customer is doing or if there are further concerns that need to be addressed. As I build these stronger relationships, I make sure I reiterate what each member of the team can expect from me and also what’s realistic/feasible.

Deliver on what you promised. This is the outcome of your hard work! You’re delivering what was expected and communicating effectively so everyone signs off on the deliverables and the current status. It’s at this point in time that I hand over the project or it’s closed.  

Every project and every relationship is different, but I’ve found communication and honesty are the core components to rebuilding a partnership with your teams and end customers.

What are your top tips for rebuilding a frayed relationship with a customer? What would you do differently? Let’s share knowledge in the comments below!

Posted by Emily Luijbregts on: September 09, 2020 03:23 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

Thanks for sharing. I agree with you. The cultural factor plays a major role as well. Both the culture of the country and the culture of the company. Honesty may come hard for some. However if you get people to open up and talk freely they usually feel much better about the project and the situation and start working with a new boost.
I work a lot with drawing people out one-on-one, often off site, to make them feel comfortable. I buy many cups of tea of coffee if needed.

Thanks Emily,
Poor expectation management causes untold damages....

Thank you everyone! I'm glad that you liked it!

Good reading! On a few occasions I took over troubled projects and can relate to most of the aspects mentioned in your post.

In some cases the exiting PM did a poor job. In these cases it is essential to regain the loss credibility by regaining project control and by introducing the necessary changes in an open and transparent manner.

La credibilidad toma mucho tiempo construirla, perderla segundos! En algunos casos donde he llegado en un proceso fallido, he encontrado coincidencias en gobernanzas con conflictos de intereses, empresas familiares y organizaciones funcionales tibias en la delegación de un equipo de proyecto dedicado.
La inteligencia emocional a través de reuniones de coaching corporativo, donde se formulen preguntas reveladoras que provoquen catarsis en los stakeholders son vitales al iniciar. Se cumple el adagio que dice: "es mejor una vez rojo, que cien veces rosado"

Good advice. But a common obstacle, especially with troubled projects, is key stakeholders who will not give you any or enough time to work things out. What then?

Hi Gary,

I think there needs to be a frank discussion with the stakeholder who's not giving you the time about the consequences of what will happen or escalate it to your manager and have it handled on a Management level.

I have had this happen to me and I sat in the room with the stakeholder and was honest, sincere and open about what I was trying to do, why I wanted to do it and why I needed their support. They went from shouting to reasonable within 5minutes.

@alvaro: you are very correct about the role and impact of being emotionally intelligent and thank you for taking the time to comment about your own experience!

Thank you Emily, I am completely in line with your strategy.
In particular I buy the "Cancel 90 % of scheduled meetings".
This is forcing to really optimize people time and have more effective meetings.

I like how you've summarised this so well Emily. My takeaway is also that we as PMs should not shy away from having difficult conversations such as these.

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