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Topics: Change Management, Ethics and Organizational Culture
What to focus on when overtaking existing project?

Hi! What would you focus on in the first weeks when taking over existing team and jumping into already running project? Thanks!
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The first thing I would do is scrutinize every piece of project documentation to make sure it is accurate, and immediately tell the Sponsor if anything is incorrect or missing. Sometimes Project Managers suddenly leave projects because they have mismanaged them. In these situations the outgoing Project Manager will hide the mess he or she made, and tell everyone the project is doing well. The unsuspecting new Project Manager will then take control of the project, assuming everything is fine. Several weeks or months later the problems concealed by the first Project Manager reveal themselves, but by then enough time has passed that people will blame the problems on the new Project Manager. If you're taking over for another Project Manager, you want to be sure you're not being set up in this manner.

Lenka, I look at the orgchart and schedule 1:1 with the key stakeholders.
From these, I have a good view on the conflicts, problems, risks and issues.
Will then prepare a recovery plan (normally 3 months), get feedback from key stakeholders and propose it to the sponsor.

I'd generally look to understand major projects/products, their status, their plans/deliverables/timelines, who's active on the team or otherwise an owner of certain tasks, and budget/costs. From those conversations will bring many other questions pertinent to the role but I wouldn't try to focus on those secondary questions.

Hi Lenka -

I wrote an article on this a couple of years back. Here it is:

I’ve written previously about the need for a project manager to proactively plan for a smooth transition if someone else will be assuming the role on one of their projects. Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself taking over from a project manager who has followed some of those suggestions, it will make your life easier.

But often we don’t have that luxury.

When projects get into trouble, rightly or wrongly, the project manager may have been identified as a convenient sacrificial lamb and you might join the project after they have been expeditiously shown the door. Other times the individual might have just been moved to a different, higher priority project but they did not maintain a complete, accurate project control book or they may simply not have the time to help with your onboarding.

In such cases, what should you do?

Meet the sponsor

Even if there are documents such as a charter or project management plan, there’s no substitute for learning about the needs and wants of your sponsor as early as possible. Developing a productive, symbiotic relationship with this critical stakeholder will often make the difference between success and abject failure.

Make sure you take the time to understand what they expect from you from both a communications and expectation management perspective, but also gauge their willingness to support you when decisions, issues or risks have been escalated to their attention.

Meet the team

Recognize that the team will be experiencing the change churn of having lost a leader.

If the previous project manager was despised, you will bear some of that baggage and will want to ensure that you don’t get drawn into a comparison competition with your predecessor or having to defend the value of project management. On the other hand, if the team adored their project manager, you may face suspicion and resentment and will have to avoid the temptation to become defensive about why you were placed in the role.

Be curious, ask questions, but most important, strive to be a servant-leader, giving the team some time to grieve but also demonstrating your value by escalating or ideally removing any hurdles that have hampered their productivity.

Trust but verify current state

Status reports, feedback from the sponsor or the team might provide you with insights into the project’s state, but seek evidence that supports their assessment.

Identify recent milestones and confirm that different stakeholders agree that those have been successfully met. Once you understand what milestone is coming up, check with the sponsor and team to ensure that there is alignment towards its completion. Ask questions about the top three risks and issues. Check the financial health of the project with your finance partners to ensure the books are in good shape.

While a project plan might exist for your project, you should still create a personal onboarding plan reflecting the specific activities you will need to complete to be effective in your new role. Treat this role transition as you would any meaningful project – plan the work, and then work the plan!

Interesting problem Lenka. Kiron, I like the idea of a "personal on-boarding plan". That would be a great tool to help you focus on getting up to speed. And Eric and Jeffrey have provided some additional ideas on what should be considered for that plan?

Set the expectations on your team and the sponsors that you are finding your feet and will need a month or so to get a grip on what has been happening so far
Get a hold on the Project Financials and Scope.
Check the deliverable desired in terms of documentation from the Scope Statement/Business Proposal and identify gaps.
Get a hold on the reporting needs /Steering committees the project reports to
Get acquainted with the team members and their role on the project
Get a feel of how things were done and what you would do to change the things that did not go well or retain /improve the things that did go well on the project.

After you have had a feel of the project , set a realistic expectation on when "YOU " think the project will be delivered not what your pre-decessor set as expectations for in terms of timeframes . If your sponsor has an expectation that absolutely has to be met in terms of time frames, cost, quality and scope and you think they cannot be realistically achieved, highlight that as Risks and Issues in the next Program Board/Steering Committee

I would quickly review the project charter, scope, plans and progress reports. Then create a plan for backlogs and start to communicate with stakeholders, sponsors, and team.

Thanks to all of you for your insight. I’ve been thinking about that recently a lot and I have to say I most incline to advice from Thomas W. , to start with 1:1 first. As I’m learning from my recent mistake when I put higher priority on What, I underestimated how much people want to be heard at the first place. Focus on What, checking the status and such is indeed very important too, there must be a balance. But there are always reasons why projects are handed over and restoring trust with the team sounds to me like the most important step overall.

Hi Lenka,

You should have meeting with Sponsor, All stakeholders and review progress reports of Project and check Project Management plan.
You can check the Kiron Post on this.

I would say, project plan and your first core team meeting will reveal most risks and gaps :) Always works for me
Project plan has been put together by the whole team who identified tasks and their dependencies, core team meetings are designed to go over the plan and status on progression of tasks
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