by Dhanu Kothari, April 18, 2012
A project failure is seldom caused by unknown or mysterious factors. In fact, failure is often predictable, based on symptoms and warning signs. And it can be prevented by following a disciplined approach to recover the project. Here, an experienced recovery specialist shares his methodology for fixing a failing project.
The journey to project recovery begins with the acceptance that a project is in trouble. There are as many definitions and perspectives of a troubled project as there are stakeholders. A client might be utterly frustrated with the pace of progress or quality of deliverables, while the project manager honestly believes that everything is going well. The impact of such issues, if they are allowed to simmer with no attempt at resolution, can be devastating.
Let’s accept that a project is in trouble when there is a continued and sustained pattern of failure to meet the client’s expectations. These failures usually manifest themselves as schedule slippages, budget overruns, missed deliverables, and quality or performance issues, as well as general malaise among team members and overall client disillusionment with the project.
There is a need, however, to differentiate between a truly troubled project and the day-to-day, routine variances that usually occur on any project. Sometimes the routine variances may appear to be quite complex and challenging because of constraints and dynamics associated with the project. A project under these circumstances could be considered “difficult” but not necessarily “troubled.”
Criteria for Troubled Projects
There are two sets of criteria for troubled projects: Objective and Subjective. Objective criteria serve as hard measures relative to project performance, and they are usually defined in the context of industry, organization and type of project. They are defined by the triple constraints of Cost, Time and Performance. Some examples include:
30% or more over estimated budget (Cost)
30% or more over estimated target date (Time)
30% or more over estimated resources (Performance)
Repeated failure to complete deliverables (Performance)
Repeated failure to meet the client’s quality standards (Performance)
Subjective criteria for troubled projects consist of variable and human factors.
The variable factors might be indicated by the presence of the following:
> The integrity and value of deliverables, as perceived by the client, are questionable. The client fails to see the benefits or value of the deliverables.
> There is a lack of acknowledgement of risks associated with the project, and there are no plans for managing project risks. The project is driven by a deadline; therefore, there is no room for risks.
> There is an inherent mismatch in terms of goals, constraints and promises associated with the project. The project objectives are neither realistic nor achievable.
> There is a lack of alignment and consistency in procurement strategy in relation to the overall project constraints. The project is defined as “fixed price” while critical suppliers are working on a “time and materials” or “pay as you go” basis.
Human factors for troubled projects include fragile stakeholder and team relationships, dissatisfied clients, dysfunctional communication, lack of purpose, non-existent or poor documentation, language of despair, and talk of legal action among involved parties. These are often evident as symptomsthat serve as early warning signs for troubled projects.
The Dirty Dozen
There are many factors that could lead a project into a troubled state. Here’s the “dirty dozen” list that is primarily associated with troubled projects. Note that none of the following present themselves as a one-time or unexpected events; rather, they tend to accumulate over time and push the project to operate in a troubled mode. They are also associated mostly with people and communication issues rather than product, process and technology considerations.
- Failure to recognize the symptoms of trouble
- No sponsorship or management commitment
- Project “hijacked” by promise of technology and technologists
- Lack of focus on business process and strategy
- Force-fitting a technical solution for every business problem
- Lack of rationale and acceptance criteria for requirements
- Project objectives lost in change control and issue management
- Wishful thinking; Hiding of problems; Culture of fear; outright lies
- Lack of Business Case, Project Charter and Project Plan
- Lack of awareness, assessment and planning for project risks
- Poor communication both within and outside the team
- Poor Management of Change and Cultural Integration
An understanding of issues surrounding project failures provides insight into what needs to be done to achieve a successful recovery. The major issues, as summarized below, relate to project alignment, interfaces, objectives, organization and the management of change.
- Project objectives are not aligned with business goals and strategies. There is the need to evaluate and realign objectives which will form the basis for the initial recovery strategy.
- There are many interfaces and points of failure that derail the project due to interpretation and complexity of communication. The seeds of failure can germinate anywhere throughout the project cycle starting with Business Needs and progressing through Requirements, Specifications, Design, Development, Test and the Final Outcome. Developing an understanding of the interfaces and communication needs is essential for the recovery process.
- Project objectives have not kept pace with business needs that often change since the project started. Projects are often associated with intangible benefits and varying cross-functional roles and expectations, thereby leading to the perception of failure. Staying focused on the changing business needs and integrating them into the project through a formal change control process is critical to recovery.
- Projects encompass more than just the delivery organization. The dynamics and politics among various stakeholders and parts of the organization can result in weakening the project, if left unchecked. Understanding the involvement of stakeholders should include the interests of individuals as well as business groups and organizations that could have an impact on the project.
- Change management is the single most important factor that is often overlooked during planning. It has to do with getting people ready and trained so that they are willing to embrace people and process-related changes resulting from the project. Change implications of projects are generally underestimated or not considered at all from a change management perspective.
A Roadmap for Recovery
The roadmap for project recovery consists of two parallel paths: Project Recovery Cycle and Recovery Coaching Cycle. The first one gets the project back on track, while the second one builds the foundation for avoiding future occurrences of the need for recovery. Just as in a relay race, the Project Recovery Manager sets the winning conditions, guides the team, leads the recovery effort and then passes on the baton to the project team who runs with it to the finish line.
The first step in setting the winning conditions is to get a high-level overview of the project situation and understand the challenge and complexity of what one is faced with. This can be accomplished through a “Project Quick-Scan.”
The objective of the Quick-Scan is to understand the scope and complexity of what one is dealing with and get the project profile quickly for deciding a further course of action. Prior to initiating a quick-scan it is recommended that a short questionnaire be developed with the objective of getting an understanding of major symptoms.
The Quick-Scan will demonstrate the extent to which critical information, that would influence strategy and decision making about the project, is unknown or misunderstood by key stakeholders. It also helps the Recovery Manager to begin to identify potential root causes to be addressed in the recovery process. There are three types of quick-scans that should be conducted as a minimum prerequisite:
The Project Characteristics Quick Scan captures the key attributes about the project. It is intended for discussion with the Project Manager and the project team.
The Standards Compliance Quick Scan validates the extent to which the project is using minimum acceptable standards and formal practices for project implementation. It is used for discussions with audit and compliance functions.
The Business Compliance Quic
k-Scan interprets the business rationale, project strategy and other qualitative aspects related to business alignment and some of the challenges encountered by the implementation team. It is designed to facilitate discussion with senior management.
These quick scans provide multiple perspectives from different sources and give insights into why the project is in its current troubled state. Moreover, they generate credible input to accepting the fact that the project is in need of a recovery. Typical questions for a Quick-Scan include the following:
- What is the situation?
- What are we dealing with in this project?
- What is the strategic importance and purpose of the project?
- What is the project category or type? (e.g. Routine Maintenance, Short Turnaround, Regular, Breakthrough, Research and Development etc.)
- What is the complexity of the project in terms of Size, Scale, Interfaces, Suppliers, and Geographical Spread?
- What is the technology used? Is it proven, new, tested or untested?
- How critical is the project deadline? Is it absolute - as in the case of the Olympic Games or is it relative - as in the case of a product launch?
- What are the key resources and how is the project organized?
- What is the level of readiness for risk in terms of risk awareness, risk profile and risk planning?
- What is the degree of overall confidence in terms of getting the job done? How bad is the situation?
- What are the reasons for saving the project?
- Is the project viable? Can it be saved?
The Recovery Manager discusses these questions with the client. The objective is to address them honestly, openly and quickly in order to validate that the potential for recovery exists and the management is seriously interested in achieving a successful recovery. The Quick-Scans provide crucial clues to determine if the recovery should be undertaken, and if so, it defines the broader scope of the engagement.
Planning for Recovery
The process of recovery consists of six stages: (1) Fact-finding (2) Recovery Charter (3) Analysis (4) Deep Dives (5) Implementation and (6) Transition.
1. Fact-finding — A Project Recovery Manager is assigned to the project. Fact-finding is accomplished through an Initial Quick-Scan (IQS) where the objective is to learn as much as possible and as quickly as possible, to assess the present circumstances of the project. The purpose of the IQS is similar to conducting a preliminary survey to get the lay of the land. It helps the Recovery Manager to quickly look for symptoms and gauge their severity.
2. Recovery Charter — The Initial Quick-Scan is followed by a Recovery Charter that outlines the business case, and details of recovery scope, cost, resources and risks for management approval. The approved Charter validates the scope of work to be done and it authorizes the interim Project Recovery Manager to develop and implement a recovery plan.
3. Analysis of the facts — This consists of conducting a series of detailed Quick Scans for project characteristics, business and standards compliance, and a formal assessment of the project using various tools such as Project Health-Check, Stakeholder Analysis, Risk Profiling, Problem Solving, Root Cause Analysis and Documentation Reviews. The Health Check provides a measure of stability for the overall project and highlights the weakest elements of the project.
4. Deep Dives — the analysis is then followed by a series of “Deep Dives” which are focused investigations into specific weak areas of the project. The results of the analysis and “deep dives” are summarized into an Assessment, which includes recommendations on how to rescue the troubled project by addressing the causes of the original problem.
5. Implementation — this consists of executing detailed steps in the recovery plan. The Recovery Manager works with the assigned Project Manager and the team to implement the plan monitor its progress and control it.
6. Stabilization and Transition — The Recovery Manager stays involved in the engagement until the project has achieved stabilization and then turns it back to the Project Manager through an orderly transition process. At this point, the project is under control, there is a new baseline for the project and the project team continues to deliver in accordance with the new baseline.
Recovery Phases and Stages
The recovery cycle is divided into three phases with processes for each of them as follows:
“Audit and Planning”: Phase (A) with processes 1-3
“Implementation”: Phase (I) with processes 4-7
“Managing the Transition”: Phase (M) with processes 8-10
Taken together, the three phases and ten processes form the basis of the AIM Methodology and the A10 Process Model for Project Recovery.
Phase 1: Audit and Planning (A)
The objective of this phase is to determine the chances of the project's survival, identify appropriate strategies and develop a preliminary action plan. It involves fact-finding and diagnosing the scope and severity of the project’s problems. Once major problems and opportunities are identified, the Recovery Manager develops a strategic plan with specific goals and detailed functional actions. This plan must then be sold to all key players including the management team, stakeholders and the project team. This phase focuses on planning for recovery and it consists of 3 processes: Accept, Assess and Adapt.
A1 – Accept — This refers to an acknowledgement by the sponsors that the project is in trouble. It involves getting them to accept the situation if they are in denial. One of the major reasons why a project recovery fails is that the need for recovery is not recognized until it is too late.
A2 – Assess — The situation is assessed by reviewing available documentation, conducting interviews and completing fact gathering. These include a description of business case, project charter, statement of work, scope definition, detailed schedule, communication plan, risk management, project organization, roles and responsibilities, status reports, minutes of meetings and change requests.
A3 – Adapt — A course of action is planned and developed for implementing the recovery. It starts with understanding changes to the original plan, adapting it and restructuring it for purposes of recovery. It includes a revised Project Charter (which is different from a Recovery Charter), an implementation roadmap, a detailed schedule, management commitment for required resources, and a list of project deliverables. It may also include an Emergency Action Plan designed to stop the bleeding on the project right away.
Phase 2: Implement the Plan (I)
The objectives of this phase are to execute the project plan by following standard project management principles and practices. It covers all of the basic Project Management responsibilities associated with getting work done. The major processes associated with the Implement phase are: Assign, Achieve, Act and Advance. Key steps in this phase are to:
Delegate and assign responsibilities to team members, and get their commitments
Ensure that associated milestones and deliverables are clearly communicated and understood by the team, and
Advance the project through communications, coordination and control.
A4 – Assign — Steps are designed to ensure effective delegation of work. It starts with a recovery kick-off meeting with the project team to review the updated Project Charter and ensures that the team understands how the project will be managed till its closure. It sets ground rules and processes for managing the project with best practices, and requires that every work package has designated individuals who are responsible for accepting, approving, defining and delivering it.
A5 – Achieve — Targets are set based on Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Target-driven (SMART) objectives. The road to recovery consists of intermediate objectives that must be clearly defined with respect to their success criteria and deliverables.
A6 – Act — Practices, tools and techniques are implemented for instituting a consistent and predictable process of problem solving and decision making. A successful recovery depends on consultative selling and getting the “buy-in” of stakeholders through discussions, facilitations and negotiations. This process addresses the relationship between the process of decision making and the action of decision taking.
A7 – Advance — Project objectives are continually upheld and it ensured that the project team is held together by a common purpose. As with many other projects, the Recovery Manager acts as a salesperson and an evangelist for the project. This is crucial to ensure the team stays committed to project goals. This process includes all the vehicles for project communication that are required to advance the project towards its completion.
Phase 3: Manage the Transition (M)
The major processes in the transition phase focus on stabilizing and ensuring an orderly transfer of project to the Project Manager. Stabilization is confirmed when the recovery project is following the recommended policies, processes and procedures on a regular basis, they are working successfully and are fully accepted by its stakeholders.
At this point, the Recovery Manager transfers the responsibility to the ongoing Project Manager and completes the transition. Transition is also associated with building the foundation for Program Governance leading to a Program Management Office, Program Portfolio Management and continuous improvement in the organization.
The processes associated with the transition phase are:
A8 – Accomplish — increased confidence on the part of the project team accomplishes stability. Overall stakeholder satisfaction regarding timeliness and quality of deliverables, and management support and commitment steadies the project. The atmosphere of malaise and mistrust is replaced by confidence and credibility, and the Recovery Manager is ready to move on.
A9 – Alter — a change is made in the direction of the project through effective coaching and transition to the Project Manager. The coaching cycle begins early in the recovery project and it deals with building trust, gaining commitment and developing the Project Manager’s skills. It includes establishing a process for managing all aspects of the project and stabilizing the project through a common understanding of its future direction with all stakeholders.
A10 – Align — the organizational structure, discipline and management processes for on-going execution of future projects are put onto alignment. It encompasses the concepts of Program Governance, Program Portfolio Management, standardized methodologies and processes for achieving continuous improvement.
The AIM Methodology and its ten processes and ground rules provide a foundation of the A10Model for Project Recovery. The author developed the methodology based on experience in achieving successful project recovery and business turnaround in medium to large enterprises.