5 key steps to get a derailed project back on track

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When a project derails, you have an opportunity to learn and course correct. Through the years I have been asked to recover a number of troubled projects and followed these steps.

"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless." – Thomas Edison

I have been lucky for the number of occasions where I was asked to put a derailed project back on track. The recovery of a troubled project is a great learning opportunity for any organization. When it goes wrong, it can go wrong really fast and oftentimes with severe impact. On the other hand, what's learned can be of value for a lifetime, not only when one is receptive to it. There are five simple steps to turn a project around:

Sit down and listen

The first thing you want to do is to meet with the people who represent different internal and external stakeholder groups. Listen with empathy. Seek to understand first, before to be understood. Conduct a detailed impact analysis that clarifies the root cause of the derailment. Keep digging in case of conflicting information, up to the point where the facts speak for themselves. Be audacious in asking for information when you believe its available, but appears to be inaccessible. Escalate if you need to. Leverage senior level relationships.

Structure your findings

Document your findings in such a way that it can be easily shared with stakeholders upon request, and retrieved for presentations. Create a separate "living document" to capture lessons-learned. What has worked for me in the past is to structure the findings by business process, technology and stakeholder or stakeholder group. These are three key dimensions of the solution the project is about to deliver, and people can easily relate to when you discuss your findings.

Build a coalition of positive advocates

While you are making your rounds to gather information, you’ll find out who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. At a certain point in time you need to rally the troops to restart the project and you can only do that when you have established a coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome. The key purpose of the coalition is to drive change throughout the life cycle of the project, and make sure that key stakeholders remain aligned and committed. Especially at the start when things can be messy and ambiguous, you need leadership support to keep things moving forward, make small adjustments and celebrate quick wins.

Present options to move forward

When you have got your facts straight, completed the root-cause analysis, defined options and a recommendation, developed a plan, and got buy in from the key stakeholders, it is time for an official presentation of your findings and plan to move forward. The presentation is the first milestone of recovery and start of a new begin. That moment in time must be celebrated and marked as the turn-around point. The presentation is more of a formal approval of the new approach, as you have already obtained your approvals ahead of time through a number of preliminary meetings with the executives. Make sure that the key messages are shared with all project stakeholders with the right level of detail. Transparency and openness are key values as you move forward and put the project back on track.

Rebuild the team

Restart the project with the right people and make use of the momentum to assess the integrity and capability of the project team. Make the necessary changes as required. This applies to internal and external resources. Look further than the required knowledge, experience and skills. Think about personality, leadership style, motivational aspects and willpower. Establish a team with leaders who are intrinsically motivated to make it happen. Aim for a world-class team that has the guts, courage and bravery to deliver with relentless effort. Rebuild trust in the team.

There is a reason why projects derail and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as there is a willingness to learn and do it different and better the next time. By adjusting plans and strategies, and by making changes to the approach and team, organizations will be able to behave themselves out of the troubled situation, and oftentimes faster than they think.

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