PMO Tips: Ten Project Rescue Tips for PMO Managers

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Rescue (verb) / to save someone or something from a situation of harm or danger.
PMO Comics, by Mark Perry

Project managers manage projects, but ultimately it is management and the leadership team that is responsible for policy, metrics, and decision making for project rescue. Here are ten project rescue tips for PMO managers to consider when managing the project portfolio.

  1. Be open to the possibility that the project is failing. It is natural for project managers and project teams to have a task-oriented focus. And, most project methodologies anticipate project difficulties and provide monitoring and controlling processes for change, issues, and problem management. However, the resulting mindset for the project effort can often be singularly focused on getting the project back on track to the exclusion of any real consideration given to the fact that the project may very well be failing. Be open to the possibility that the project effort could be failing.
  2. Recognize early warning signs.. Early warning signs, both good and bad, exist in all projects. Early warning signs can be seen in just about every aspect of the project effort such as the attitudes of the project manager and all involved in the project effort. Early warning signs can also be seen in the performance of your IT infrastructure, systems and applications, tools and machinery, as well as internal and external factors that can impact project scope, timing, and risk. It is always easier to get projects back on track that haven't drifted too far off course. Recognizing the project early warning signs helps to prevent your projects and project mangers from failing.
  3. Beware of the last mile syndrome. Often times, project managers fall victim to the "last mile syndrome." That is, it takes 90 percent of the project time to finish the last 10 percent of the project scope. This can occur for many reasons from poor project requirements and scope planning to ad hoc development rather than process-oriented iterative development. The end result often is the extension of the project for just one more month, and again, and again. If your project managers are still waiting for their last month, take notice and beware of this last mile syndrome.
  4. Admit you have a problem. Many project organizations continue with failing projects instead of taking action, corrective or termination, early. Often, project managers are skilled at managing project difficulties and they have the confidence to think that they can project manage their way out of any bad project and in many cases they can. However, if you don't get people to recognize that there is a problem then rescuing the project is going to be very difficult later on. When you identify the reluctance to admitting there is a problem, then rescuing the project becomes much, much easier.
  5. Pause the project. Pausing the project gives you an opportunity to regroup, establish a new plan, and restore integrity to the project baseline and your project manager. By continuing a failing project, you are likely to burn time and money against the project not knowing where you are truly headed or if you are on the path to completion. Pausing a project does not need to be difficult or scary. To pause the project, you may need to say, "This project is not on the right course." Some people might think the ship is sinking and want to flee the project, but most will eagerly take advantage of the opportunity to get things back on track.
  6. Audit the project. Even your most experienced project manger can have great difficulties delivering a difficult, complex project. And often, organizations perform project management in an ad hoc manner without any processes or policies in place to help the project manager and all those involved in the project effort to ensure the integrity of the project. After pausing the project, assemble the appropriate members of the organization to conduct a project audit. The purpose of the project audit should not be to place blame nor to fix or re-baseline the project. Rather, the purpose of the project audit is to first find out the root causes for why the project is failing.
  7. Assess the effort to complete the project. To restore the integrity of the project, assess the effort, both schedule and budget, to complete the project. Often, when initially estimating projects, many project managers use intuitive estimating; they estimate from gut feel and personal opinion rather than from historical estimating experience. Intuitive estimating may work with smaller projects, however, larger projects require experienced-based estimating. If possible, enlist the aid of someone who has experience performing the particular project tasks in order to get realistic estimates. Additionally, establish and maintain a historical estimating database within the PMO so that your project managers can estimate future projects more accurately.
  8. Validate the business case for the project. Ask yourself, is it worth continuing the project? It is possible that the project is no longer important or a priority for the organization. Additionally, external factors such as new technologies and alternative solutions may render the initial approach of the project obsolete. Before proposing that the project be restarted, validate the project's business case.
  9. Submit the project to governance. From a business perspective, determine if at this point in time the project still makes sense to pursue and if the project is an appropriate use of the resources of the company. Look at the value of the project and compare it to other competing project alternatives and initiatives. Perhaps previously the project was a priority, but now the project scorecard may rank quite differently. Submit the project to your governance process to gain formal understanding, approval, and support for the project.
  10. Restart the project. Now that you have a new and approved project plan and new estimates, re-launch the project. Have the executive sponsor for the project and your project manager communicate to the team how important the project is. And, take steps to ensure that the project team is prepared and mentally positive about restarting the project effort. Be mindful of all of the past project difficulties and be prepared to deal with potential roadblocks.
Posted on: March 07, 2008 12:53 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Very practical tips! I would encourage all PMs working on a troubled project to take heed of these ten pointers.

I think these tips are relevant to all projects. Our project methodology includes regular business reviews of the project, some might relate these to gate reviews, the essence is the same. The object is to review the current status, the critical success factors, the business case and the way forward to ensure the whole business is aligned and understands where the project is going. The knowledge that your project is up for review in 4 to 6 weeks time helps encourage the heads-up view to be taken by the PM and the project team. The hope is that this will stop project heading off, or at least provides a mechanism for catchingthem before they have gone too far astray.

Ok with most of these except No.5 Pausing a project. One of the great unwritten rules of Projects is keeping momentum. Fully on board about the need to realign cost to business case however if you stop there is a risk that you will not get started again. This risk is linear in relation to programme/project size.

John, I agree with your concern. Pausing the project should be a matter of policy and there must be an ability to pause the project when the policy guidelines and threshholds have been met. In fact, the purpose is to "stop" that project momentum altogether. And the risks of project failure by continuing a very troubled project are likely exponential to the size of the program/project. This is especially important in external projects for customers where the business relationship can be lost forever. By all means, keep the project momentum going in face of the early warning signals. But when it is absolutely clear that project problems exist and the project can''t possibly succeed, it must be "paused." The risk that the project will not be started again is likely to be more on account of not having a project rescue process and mindset or that the project should be terminated, rather than that the project was actually "okay after all" but not restarted simply because it had been paused. I suspect we are probably saying the same thing with slightly different words. I do agree with your observation about project momentum. All the more reason to have a project rescue policy and not leave project resuce to chance. As an unscientific anecdotal observation, over the last 25+ years I can recall numerous failed projects that were not paused that should have been with horrendous consequences. I cannot recall a single project that was paused and not restarted when it should have been. There are those that advocate that when you are trying to get out of a hole, you should stop digging. However, it is also possible, perhaps, to dig through to the other side. Hence, effective processes, good judgment, and flexibility will always outlast and outcompete ad hoc best efforts. Thank you for your insights, I hope we hear and learn from others.

I do agree with Mark and must say projects who are not re-started often do not have a solid business case left to cover the additional costs required. Pausing a project is an option to perform the tips 7,8, and 9 with the eventual goal to perform 10. However if the a project is not viable it should be stopped. There are numerous projects which should have been stopped because results will not be used or the costs will never be covered.

Very good read, it will give PMs some good effects of a wake-up call and focus more on what is highly prioritize

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