You are a busy PM – your project plate full of challenging projects. Yet someone in charge thinks you need to be the one to take over a project – be it troubled, or just in need of a replacement leader. It’s hard to look “weak” and say, “No”, so you smile and nod. Rarely are you given the right of first refusal. They want you on it and you better take the assignment. Does this still sound familiar? I’m sure most of us have been at this point at some time or another. It’s nice to be wanted, but you get that uneasy feeling that your other work and projects may suffer and you may not come out looking good in the end no matter how well you turn things around on the newly assigned project. So accept it if you must, but do it cautiously, efficiently, and wisely.
When I need to jump on a new project like this, I generally go through a few steps to get up to speed…and for this scenario I’ll assume that the outgoing project manager has little to no ability to transfer knowledge to me as I come on board…the onus for that falls to me.
Here’s what I always try to do and recommend doing if you find yourself in this scenario:
Meet with the original account manager. This may or may not be of much help – it really depends on how far into the project you are. But the account manager who closed the deal always has some good info on assumptions that were made, customer needs he figured out, and estimates that were derived and how they were derived. All this may be helpful, but if the project is two-thirds complete, then likely not. It’s your call and it’s probably worth a phone call, but don’t spend too much time on this step.
Meet with the PMO director or executive management person who assigned this to you. Meet one-on-one with whoever assigned you to the project. Get as much high-level (and detailed, if possible) knowledge transfer as you can. Why did this happen? What’s the customer’s satisfaction level at this point? What are the outstanding issues? And if the outgoing PM is available at all, include them in this discussion and get as much information from them as possible.
Peruse current, available project documentation. Next, grab as much current documentation on the project as possible. The most recent 2-3 status reports will be very helpful and a detailed review of the revised project schedule is necessary. Likewise, review the resource forecast and budget analysis information in great detail. If the outgoing manager was not good at managing either of these, then you’ll need to create these from scratch and likely put together some historical budget information on the project so you know where the project budget stands. This is critical information.
Conduct an internal team meeting. After you’ve managed to get somewhat up to speed, meet with the internal project team to discuss the project as a whole, all of the outstanding issues, what the customer pain points seem to be, what caused whatever is happening on the project to happen (necessitating the PM replacement action), and what the next hot tasks are. It’s critical that you appear to be as much in control as possible before stepping in front of the customer in order to salvage as much customer confidence and satisfaction as possible at this point.
Introduce yourself to the project customer and move forward. Finally, jump in with both feet. Introduce yourself to the project client either during a separate one-on-one call or during the next project status meeting. Provide them with your resume, your project experience summary on similar projects and hand them a revised status report and project schedule for the current week. The key is to be in charge – and this may require you to “fake it till you make it” at this point because you may still be trying to get up to speed depending on how quickly you’ve been required to jump on board.
Taking over a project that is underway can be very difficult – far more difficult than starting from scratch. And you never know immediately what you are “inheriting.” You’ll probably hear lots of “Good luck” comments…and you’re going to need them. But using these strategies can help you gain confidence, composure, and team and customer trust so you can start with both feet firmly on the ground and pointed in the right direction.
How about our readers? What strategies do you employ when taking over an existing project? What do you avoid? Please share your own experiences.