The aspirational objectives of the latest business agendas can test our project management capability to deliver successfully to their limits. Business objectives are often simple, visionary outcomes and date related based on their desire for increased revenue, reduced costs, greater efficiency gains. It then then the challenge for the Project Manager, to build the required foundations to realise this dream – or should we say, meet the directive.
Having a project or programme set for success from the outset is probably a conversation for another day: Do we really know the scope? Are all expectations and incentives aligned? What above governance controls and engagement?
Let us just note that programmes and projects are becoming increasingly complex, due to the traditional demands of market speed, fiscal control, and the need to delivery of fit for purpose services (time-cost-scope/quality). There are many reasons why projects can go wrong. The project managers therefore has an essential role in spotting the warning signs of a failing project.
Occasionally, the identification of an issue comes too late. In these instances, significant corrective action is needed to get the project back on track. If the failure is catastrophic and should have been foreseen, all of those involved, from the sponsor down, will have likely damaged their reputations and any trust will have become shattered. So the role of the recovery project manager and their team is implicit to recover the delivery somehow, and often the reputations of the individuals or the stakeholders concerned.
Identifying a failing project
While it can be difficult to recognise a project going wrong, there are some common signs to look out for. A lack of effective planning is often sighted as a reason for project failure. However, dig a little deeper and you will probably find other underlying issues, often linked to communication, incentives, or a lack of understanding.
When there is a missed deadline or a lack of team alignment, the project manager may use this as a cue to revalidate that everyone involved in the project has a common understanding. Do we all understand the goals? Is the scope (and/or guardrails) clearly agreed? Are the responsibilities and dependencies for key dates clear? Are risks, issues and dependencies being actively managed.
Still, even the best-led projects can struggle to overcome serious issues in their foundations. It can be difficult to recover a project if there is a lack of stakeholder support, as trust can break down. In these circumstances, the project manager must demonstrate that they are a ‘safe pair of hands’, they can rebuild stakeholder relationships and regain the trust of all involved to limit the damage to the project initiative.
Reputation recovery practices
Any programme or project manager wants to be seen as a trustworthy figure that delivers on their objectives: it is vital to our professional success. Moreover, if you are working as a representative from a supplier organisation, you also have the reputation of your organisation and colleagues to consider when your project goes wrong. It only takes one major failure to cause wider reputational damage, and the impact can be long-lasting and difficult to recover from. A tarnished brand may require a long period of rehabilitation.
Identifying the problem is the first step towards recovery, but having the tools to create an action plan to recover reputation may be just as crucial as delivery of the project’s objectives.
1. Get stakeholders onside
One of the first steps to take when trying to recover reputation is trying to rebuild stakeholder trust. To do this, it’s crucial you’re honest about what happened but avoid playing the blame game. Everyone needs to be open, honest, and transparent to initiate a “reset”.
Hopefully, once you have shared this information and everyone involved is on the same page, relations will improve, and you can get the support needed to put things right. Communication with stakeholders should then continue throughout the recovery process to renew trust. Where possible, look to share early wins, however small, so that you can demonstrate a return to delivering success.
2. Create a turnaround plan
In a turnaround scenario, re-evaluating objectives and delivering a recovery plan is the best and fastest way to stabilise a project. You should ask yourself: what went wrong and how can we adapt the project to avoid these failures in the future?
It is important to learn the lessons from the past and not to try to simply move the goalposts. If possible, create a plan that acts as a follow-on phase, where the project can recover whilst leftover work is completed. Sometimes, however, the best and quickest option might be to start again, and re-baseline all estimates, assumptions and dependencies, validating the original objectives and the solution to avoid building on shaky foundations.
3. Set a new leadership standard
Having a performing team is the main asset of any project. They will likely feel dispirited by their project failing. Morale and productivity may be low and it's vital you restore their confidence quickly.
First, take steps to clarify accountabilities and any reset dependencies across all the parties. Then, introduce best practices for the project and agree on achievable performance milestones. If you communicate the expected standard of quality and celebrate small wins, your project team will be back on track to achieve objectives. Use the expertise in the teams to break it down in to bite-sized chunks and early wins so that people can see and feel progress quickly.
4. Build a communication strategy
Communications can also be the key to moving forward following project failure. You may want to look at how communication has been handled in the past, and revisit the key stakeholders – have all of the right people been engaged and have all of the people who have been involved so far been the right people? Are we measuring and reporting the right information?
Communicate broadly, accurately, and regularly. You may wish to rebrand the new project; give it a new name and messaging so that it can lose the stigma of the initial project. You can then start to talk about what the project is delivering. Be upbeat in your messages but beware of rose-tinted spectacles and don’t gloss over problems and risks, just make sure you have plans in place to resolve them and ask for help when you need it.
It should go without saying, but always be truthful, acknowledge the original problems, be clear about how they were fixed, and demonstrate that success is now being achieved. External communications can often be as important as internal, so share it on agreed social platform where appropriate, to celebrate the new successes and to help recover reputation.
Perseverance is key
While the strategies above should help, the path to project recovery is complicated. With reputations on the line, strong communications and leadership are critical to rebuilding trust and implementing a framework to put the project back on track.
Every organisation and project are different, and the road to recovery may be long. But, with a clear plan and decisive action, you can effectively manage reputation in complex projects and restore faith with stakeholders when required.
You can learn more about NTT DATA’s Project Management capabilities by contacting us.