No project lasts first contact with reality, just like no military plan lasts first contact with the enemy. It isn’t because there’s a lack of good engineers and project managers. No, it’s because these good engineers and project managers didn’t properly assess risk during the planning, design and execution phases.
Yesterday on Engineering.com I wrote about the need for an engineer leader or project manager to know when to cut their losses on a failing project. Project Management Institute in their 2013 “Pulse of the Profession” revealed that nearly 37% of all major project fail. On $1 billion in major projects, $135 million is at risk meaning that 13.5% of every project $1 you’re responsible for is at risk.
That’s a lot of risk. And after seeing reports like this one about a major construction project off schedule, severely over budget, and embroiled in a political scandal; one quickly sees that there has to be a better way for an engineer leader to make certain that if they have a project off vector, they can get it back on vector ASAP.
Use a 9-Line to Get Support
The Army uses what’s called a “nine-line medevac” request process to call in rotary-wing air support for the injured. The very existence of the process is because the Army knows that in the course of doing what it does, there is risk. With that risk, soldiers will be injured and there has to be a standard procedure that every soldier understands for call for help.
The analogy is this: in the course of leading a project there is risk. With that risk, there will be change orders, scope creep, schedule slips and changes in business strategy. In some cases, projects will become so far off course that they will be on the brink of failure. In these situations, the engineer leader needs their own nine-line process to get the project back on vector.
9-Line Project Rescue
Here’s your 9-line project rescue process:
1. Assess the situation. Put your hands on all available project documentation and call your team together for a deep-dive look at where the project is. At a minimum, have a facilitator not associated with the project be present to moderate the review. This will provide a distance from the project; something necessary to make an objective assessment of how the project ended up off track. Some questions to ask include, but are not limited to:
- When/how did the project go off track in the first place?
- Does the project have all necessary project management documentation? If not, why?
- How critical is the delivery date?
- What functionality is exactly required by the delivery date?
- What has been completed and what is still outstanding?
- How willing will stakeholders be to change scope, dates and budget?
2. Talk to the project stakeholders. If the project stakeholders aren’t aware that the project is off vector, you need to do that as soon as you have adequate details to provide context. In some cases, as in life/safety/health projects, you will need to notify them before you have any details. Bad news is not like a fine wine: it does not get better with age. Some questions to ask include, but are not limited to::
- What is the political situation within the organization? How about with the clients / end-users?
- Is the project sill aligned with the business strategy? Is it still required?
- Are the stakeholders willing to move forward with a new project plan?
3. Prepare your team for recovery. At this point, morale is likely to be in the can. Professionals don’t like to be in a losing situation and having a major project unravel will be a significant blow. As a leader, it is your responsibility to step into the breach and get the team focused on recovery. This may include having to replace team members who can’t get their heads back in the game. Some actions to take in this step include, but are not limited to:
- Re-evaluate roles & responsibilities on the project team
- Evaluate your team’s capabilities and capacity to execute going forward
- Clarify your personnel assignments. Do you need more/different personnel resources?
4. Identify the subject matter experts needed to get the project back on vector. While closely aligned with Step 3, this action warrants a line all itself. If you watched the linked FoxNews video, you saw that the VA called-in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate the project and figure out how to get it back on track. (OK, they were likely forced!) Don’t overlook the fact that despite the expertise in your team, you need new personnel or experts from outside to obtain project success. Check your ego at the door. The goal is to get a new project plan together and get it going forward as soon as possible. If that means someone new needs to come into make that happen, then have the integrity to acknowledge it. Some questions to ask include, but are not limited to:
- Who is the best person/people to get this project back on track and successfully executed?
- What do I need to do/change to ensure the new project plan can be executed?
5. Develop a new project plan. At this point you don’t need a revised project plan, you need a new one. You’re in the situation you’re in because the plan that you had failed. Some actions to take in this step include, but are not limited to:
- Stop/prevent all scope changes
- Downward adjust the scope of work
- Re-evaluate activities yet to be done
- Develop a new viable/realistic schedule
- Develop a risk management plan
- Re-evaluate resource availability
- Develop new project planning documents
Download a Risk Management Plan template here.
6. Obtain stakeholder validation and support for the new project plan. Before you can go forward you must obtain validation from the project stakeholders. In Step 2 you notified them that the project was failing and, presumably, obtained their approval to proceed in getting the project back on track. In this step you are obtaining their consent to press forward into plan execution. Without this, you do not have the assurances that they are supportive of what you intend or if the project is still viable.
7. Execute the new project plan. You have a new project plan, you have re-evaluated risk assessments, a motivated team and perhaps new subject matter experts. Go time. You put your new project plan into action.
8. Closely monitor & control performance for the remainder of the project. No doubt you were monitoring and controlling the project before it started to fail, but in this second attempt you need to be a little more engineer manager. Ensure that your performance measurement process and project management reviews are frequent enough such that they are not overbearing but transmit to all project team members that all-hands need to be paying attention. Some action to take include, but are not limited to:
- Track performance daily/weekly
- Report to stakeholders on the project’s progress as much as they need to feel comfortable the project is still on vector
- Promptly deal with all risks identified in your risk assessment plan and any change orders or problems that arise
9. Collect lessons learned and adjust your processes. It’s painful enough to experience a failing project, but to set yourself up to do so again is stupid. If you live through an experience such as this, it’s a necessity that you conduct a serious lessons-learned seminar. Bring in a facilitator, ensure notes are kept, go over the project documentation from plan #1 and the new plan, look for failures in processes or poor decisions (and why they were poor…lack of information, etcetera). Making mistakes is part of being human. Part of being an engineer leader is identifying what those mistakes were and enacting process changes to ensure they don’t happen again. Some actions to take include, but are not limited to:
- Review work processes
- Review how your team develops assumptions and assesses risk
- Review all project documentation from the initial and new project plans
- Interview team members and stakeholders
- Audit change orders
- Develop a final lessons-learned report and distribute to the organization, stakeholders
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach
If you like this post, you’ll also want to read:
Knowing When to Cut Your Losses (External link to my post on Engineering.com)
5 Skill’s You Need to Hone to Ensure Successful Project Management
One Little Known Way to Improve Every Project
- Crump, Kevin. “10 Tips for Getting Your Project Back on Track – LiquidPlanner.” LiquidPlanner. N.p., 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
- Singh, Manjeet. “ProjectMinds.” – Project Management Resources. ProjectMinds, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
- Portney, Stanley E. “Ten Steps for Getting Your Project Back on Track.” – For Dummies. For Dummies, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
- K nutson, Christian J., P.E. “Three Strategies for Obtaining Credentials and Propelling Your Engineering Career.” Job Articles. Engineering.com, 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.
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