How to Deal with Troubled Projects, by Henrique Moura

 How to Deal with Troubled Projects, by Henrique Moura

Speaker: Henrique Moura, MIM, PMP

General Manager

XPM Consulting - Oeiras

Tuesday, 8 May - 9.00–10.15 - 1 hour, 15 minutes

Summary: This presentation suggests an approach to deal with troubled projects with confidence and control. The approach deals with identifying and fixing problems across the people, processes and product dimension and is organised in phases to improve control. Suggested techniques were developed by customising classic techniques to a crisis environment. Learning objectives

castellan-martin.jpgReport by: 

Martin Castellan, PMP

France Sud Chapter


How to Deal with Troubled Projects, by Henrique Moura


The troubled project.

What causes troubled projects?  Well it’s usually one or more of:

  • Poorly-defined scope
  • Lack of change control
  • Missing buy-in or trust
  • Not fixing things that are wrong

The trouble with trouble... is that it grows and spreads.  For example - unreasonable deadlines lead to people failing which causes loss of confidence in the team and amongst the stakeholders.

So, what’s the opposite of trouble?   Success perhaps, meaning:

  • Products perform against requirements and are aligned with business needs
  • Products rapidly available
  • Products adapted to market changes
  • Cost does jeopardise the business case
  • Project meets its budget
  • Customer is happy
  • No adverse reputational impact
  • Added value for the stakeholders

All these depend on objectives which are realistic, achievable and not subjective.

Like a gambler chasing his losses, we continue troubled projects due to the time and money already invested.  The warning signs are increasing pressure to perform, poor change control and ill-defined scope.  Then, past failure makes us accept more scope changes in reduced timescales in a vain attempt to please the client and regain his confidence.

Wishing to avoid more conflict with the stakeholders, the project manager ditches change control.  Soon the rate of change exceeds the rate of progress.  This breeds pressure and the catch-up syndrome where, one by one, the team members give up.

With the lack of visible progress, the project soon loses management support.  We enter the 90% complete syndrome where only 10% of the budget remains but most of the work is still to be done.

How do we identify trouble when it comes?  Well, there are some typical signs:

  • Tasks are not base-lined, allowing scope creep
  • There are too many open activities
  • Plans are not updated
  • HR records show that team members are frequently working overtime
  • Problem logs show a large and growing list of problems
  • Problem logs show no problems at all
  • Team progress seems good but then falls suddenly
  • Poor risk management
  • Team working Sundays
  • Team members do not know the plan
  • Team members want to leave the project
  • Too many meetings


Rescuing the project.

It’s difficult to believe that the existing PM will be able to lead the recovery, even if failure is not the PM’s fault.  It usually needs a new PM and a new sponsor to build trust.

It is necessary to:

  • Make a new project to save the old one.  This is not a the same project as the original one but rather a special project with one mission – rescue.
  • Create a new scenario
  • Negotiate quick wins to produce value for stakeholders
  • Reduce and redefine the scope
  • Increase budget and/or extend the schedule
  • Prove that the new objectives are sustainable
  • Fully identify the causes
  • Impose strict risk management

The rescue mandate is to:

  • Achieve acknowledgement that the project is in trouble
  • Agree new expectations
  • Establish authority

Rescue starts by defining roles:

  • Steering committee
  • Sponsors
  • Rescue manager – not the next PM
  • Customer
  • Project team


This is followed by negotiating redefinition of the new project:

  • Scope
  • Schedule
  • Budget


The ensuing plan needs to be credible and offer some quick wins.  The short term is more important than the long term in building confidence and credibility.  The rescue management plan needs to:

  • Stabilise the products
  • Prioritise and analyse the causes of failure
  • Risk manage any immature or unstable technologies
  • Establish realistic working practices – no more overtime
  • Bring the team together to a single location to improve communication and raise team spirit
  • Validate estimates with the team so that members buy-in to the plan


In effect the output of the rescue is a new project with its resources, plan, control cycle  and scope.  The rescue manager may not be the new project manager.  These are two different characters not always found in the same person.


Final words.

  • Trouble spirals out of control
  • Trouble is not easily identified
  • Repeatedly check the symptoms
  • Rescue is itself a project
  • Rescue must have an acceptable outcome

Rescue includes remedial actions.