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How to get a failing project back on track

It can be a short path between project initiation and project failure. And while not every failing project is worth recovering, project managers who heed early warning signs of project failure can rescue a troubled project by tapping their valuable training and experience and executing the following.

Tip 1: Recognize the signs of trouble

First and foremost, pay close attention for any signs that there may be a problem with your project. Here are some important signs your project may be headed towards the ditch.

  1. Communication gaps are increasing in frequency and severity. If the right information is not ending up in the right hands at the necessary time, bigger issues that have not been identified may be in play. Keep in frequent contact with functional team leaders, key team members and stakeholders so you can catch wind of any murmurings of trouble before they get out of hand and derail your project.
  2. Increasing conflict. Conflict often surfaces when there are communication gaps and missed task and deliverable deadlines. Project managers need to keep their ears open for light conflict, which can quickly escalate. Addressing signs of conflict early can help reduce the amount and severity of issues before they get out of control and jeopardize your project.
  3. Reduced project buy-in. When team members and stakeholders lose interest or confidence in a project, buy-in decreases. Typically this means a project manager has missed communication gaps and/or increasing conflict that have triggered discouragement. At this stage, it is not too late to get a project back on track. By directly and intentionally engaging stakeholders and team members in dialogue about any underlying issues, you can turn the corner on improving buy-in. Be sure to get to the source of the problem as directly and quickly as possible.
  4. Frequently missed deadlines. Once deadlines are being missed, the risk to your project has already become serious. Getting project tasks back on track should take a front seat first before analyzing and addressing what happened.

For more tips on spotting a failing project, see “5 early warning signs of project failure.”

Tip 2: Prioritize what to address

Now that you have developed an awareness of some of the key signs of a troubled project, it is essential to determine the issues to address first and why.

  1. Vet the project’s scope and goals. Trace project activities back to the project scope to ensure the activities make sense in relation to project goals. Sometimes tasks can be inadvertently added, yet they serve no significant or relevant benefit.
  2. Identify the impact of any issues on project results. As with the previous step, trace activities to identify any issues that should be fixed and in what order. Don’t be afraid to eliminate tasks or issues that are having an negative impact on the project.

Tip 3: Address issues immediately and fully

How you address issues is vital to recovering a failing project. Here the key is to move quickly and comprehensively. Anything less will not suffice in eliminating the risk of failure.

  1. Assign resources to address priority concerns. After identifying issues and their impact, resources can be assigned to address your prioritized concerns. Make quick yet methodical changes to realign the project activities. Communicate the changes to all necessary stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  2. Reassess priorities. After issues have been addressed, it is important to reassess the project’s priorities to ensure all issues have been fully resolved. This step should be repeated to avoid additional unnecessary work and wasted time and resources.
  3. Closely monitor progress. Once you feel the project is back in motion, be sure to closely monitor and control project activities to make sure other areas are not negatively impacted by the corrective actions or other unrelated factors.

Tasks, stakeholder motivations, and team participation can quickly become misaligned with project goals, putting the project at risk of failure. Recognizing signs of trouble, dealing with issues in a timely manner, and reassessing project scope, priorities and goals are vital to getting a failing project back on track and keeping it on track.

It is important also to recognize when to kill a project. Striving to save a failing project that no longer serves the needs of the business is not wise. For more advice on when to pull the plug and how, see “When to kill (and when to recover) a failed project” and “How to kill a dead project.”

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