What to do when you are handed a problem project?

And what I wish I had done this last time...

Over the years I have become known as a project manager who likes hard projects because I enjoy the challenge.  When a project is going poorly and another project manager needs help I have often been called in to help.  Sometimes all that is needed is another set of hands/eyes to help with organizing the project, coaching on the process, or brain storm how to resolve nagging issues/risks.  At other times I have been either been brought in to replace the existing project manager.  I have also been the project manager who has been replaced.

The project I am currently working on, I was brought onto the team in June 2013 to help the project manager.  Then due to a family emergency he needed to come off the project so I became the project manager.  In Dec. 2013 the client decided they wanted to do the project management of the project.  After this experience I have decided to come up with checklist to help me be more successful.  I hope you can use this checklist.

Here is my checklist of things I look for on a project that has been active and is having problems:

  • Interview as many of the people currently on the team to find out what they think is going on
    • What is the current state of the user stories? What is each individual working on?
    • Do they know what the definition of done is for the work they are doing?
    • What is the most pressing current issue?
    • What issue just doesn't seem to be able to get resolved?
    • When is the project suppose to finish?
    • Do you believe the date to be achievable?
  • Interview project sponsor, stakeholders and anyone who might care about what is happening on the project
    • What is the current state of user stories?
    • How much work is left to do?
    • How much work is done?
    • What is the definition of done?
    • When is the project suppose to finish? 
    • Do you believe the date to be achievable?
  • Review the current state of the user stories
  • Review the project metrics
    • Is the data that drives the metrics being collected objectively?
    • Is the data that drives the metrics a natural result of doing the work?
      • i.e. User story is done when QA testing is completed
    • Is the data that drives the metrics based on team members manually updating information?
      • i.e. Updating the remaining and completed hours on tasks Does the data indicate that the team is consistently completing work?
    • Does the current trend of completing the work indicate the team will finish on time? 
    • If not when will they finish? 
    • How much more productive would they have to become to meet the current deadline?

What actions to take

Then I would put together an assessment of where the project is at and what the trend information indicates.  The entire team should work together to come up with a proposal. 

I work for a consulting company so I would first present this to my management to make sure they understand what the ramifications of going forward on the project will be.

User Stories

When the user stories are missing key elements, especially acceptance criteria, it is necessary to stop development efforts on the project.  This includes bug fixing.  If the user stories are incomplete then doing more development just makes the problems worse.  And how can someone fix a bug if what is suppose to implemented isn't well understood. 

It is necessary to have examples of the poor user stories, a plan for how to get out of the immediate situation, and what the developers and QA testers can do until the user stories are ready for development.

Project Metrics

It is really important to have two key metrics for an agile project.  The first one is a Sprint Burndown Chart (a good article on this can be found at the Scrum Alliance site).  This helps monitor whether or not the amount of work left to do within a single sprint is tracking with the original plan.

The second important metric is the Release Burndown Chart (see the article Agile Planning - How to improve your planning). With these two metrics it is possible to objectively measure where the team is at. 

Objective measurements are what is needed when talking with upper management in order to convey the current situation on a project.  It is also important to use your intuition on where the project is at based on where the team feels the project is at.

Last but not Least

Remember that when you come onto a troubled project as the project manager/scrum master is when you have the most authority to act.  Use that authority to take the most drastic actions you think are necessary to get the project back on track.  Make sure to get the backing of your management before proceeding but they brought you in to take action.  So don't disappoint them.

And if things go really bad you should just prepare three envelopes


#1 Craig J Willis 2014-02-26 12:16
Hi David,

This is a very honest assessment. I too enjoy getting involved in problem projects, less so when it becomes a problem project while I'm there! It's so very difficult to know what to do until you get a feel for what's going on.

Very sensible comments and I love the 3 envelope reference.


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