Projects become more prevalent. Not surprisingly the art of project management becomes more popular. Unfortunately this does not imply that the more projects there are the more successful they are. As a matter of fact a significant percentage of projects fail or do not yield the desired results. While in recent years the number of successful projects are on the rise, it is scary how slow this process has been. Todd Williams’ book “Rescue the Problem Project: A Complete Guide to Identifying, Preventing, and Recovering from Project Failure” (2011) is a welcome and much needed aid to help rescue and re-align struggling and failing projects. It is a very valuable resource for anyone working in a project management. Regardless whether or not the own project is on its way to glory or doom.
Williams embraces a holistic approach to project management. He explains the need and value of existing project management tools that help rescue the project management. And he goes beyond the mere listing of tools. In the Introduction of the book he stresses four key factors that are critical in rescuing a problematic project: (1) The answers to a problem in or with a project are in the team. (2) A strong team can surmount most problems. (3) Stay involved with the team. (4) Objective data is your friend, providing the key way out of any situation. By emphasizing the value of the team Williams goes beyond a mechanical “Abhandlung” of a recipe book for project rescues. He explains in simple, plain and thus easy to understand language why most answers to problems in and with a project are rooted in the team. A project is not made up of resources but human beings interacting in a social environment, building communities and network. As complex and complicated this network is, it contains an endless number of potential traps and opportunities at the same time.
Having set up the foundation of his approach to rescuing projects Williams outlines 5 steps to recover struggling projects:
The first step is to realize that a problem exists. As simple as this sounds this may actually be the most difficult step of all. The key is that the awareness of a problem is not limited to the operational level of a project but that management has to acknowledge this fact and expresses an interest in resolving the issue, helping the team to become successful.
The second step to project recovery is an audit of the project. The term “audit” has a negative connotation to many project practitioners. This must not be the case if all audits would follow the guidelines Williams describes in his book. He starts analyzing the human role in a project, followed by reviewing the scope on a red project, determining timeline constraints and examining technology’s effect on the project.
The insights gained from the audit analyzed in the third step. They are the ingredients for planning the actual project recovery. To me this part of the book is the most valuable one. Not because the author develops a clean and clear outline effective approaches to analyzing audit data but because he explains how they fit in with the core statement of the book, that a strong team is one of the critical success factors for project recovery. Doing so he stresses that project recovery is not a mechanical task, following a checklist and applying sane project management techniques. Instead he explains that it takes leadership and oversight, a deep understanding of the heart and soul of a project. Acknowledging the fact that more and more projects do not follow the traditional, sequential waterfall approach, Todd Williams gives an overview of other project management frameworks and methodologies, namely Agile and Critical Chain. He then compares them with respect change management needs, customer relationship, estimations, project constraints, subcontractor relations, and team structure.
The fourth step to project recovery is to propose workable resolutions. This is when the recovery manager presents the insights from the audit analysis and concluding mitigations and negotiates the next concrete steps with the project sponsor and stakeholders. Williams stresses the importance of staying focused on project recovery and not getting sidetracked by distractions such as maintenance and other conflicting projects.
Last but not least, the fifth step involves the actual execution of the recovery plan.
As hard, tedious, frustrating and rewarding project recoveries can be one of the key questions is what project managers can learn from past mistakes and successful recoveries. This is covered in the final part of the book entitled “Doing it Right the First Time: Avoiding Problems that Lead to Red Projects”. It shows that project failure often starts at the very beginning of the project. It can be prevented by properly defining a project’s initiations, assembling the right team, properly dealing with risk and implementing effective change management.
While the book may be most interesting to those who are facing or have faced problem projects I hope that novice project managers read this book, too. It will help them avoid common mistakes and set up a good and solid structure for project success. And in case troubles arise this book will help them guide projects to safer havens.