There are definitely steps you can take to improve performance on an existing project – things you can do tomorrow that may help right the tipping ship. But if you have tried a few or have determined the problem is the leadership, then changing out the project manager – and possible one or two other key positions on the project team depending on how bad the performance really is – may be your only option.
Only take this approach if it is absolutely necessary but if the project client is asking for the change you really have no other choice. The PM has to go. Remember, changes at top of a project... the leadership of the project... can cause major disruptions and can significantly impact customer satisfaction and confidence. But, if you are at the point of considering or needing to replace the project manager or especially if the customer is requesting this change, then that ship has already sailed and now you're just trying to salvage the project before it gets canceled and a lot of money gets left on the table, right? Not much to lose but possibly everything to gain if you do it right and do it efficiently.
I've taken over these types of projects before and I've witnessed them from other colleagues. Thankfully, I've never been the one out the door on a project, but it can easily happen to anyone. What I've found to be most effective in taking over a project like this or in replacing leadership on a project like this is to follow five key steps to some degree depending on the situation, the client and the type of project involved – so I'll try to make the steps as broad and generic as possible to help them to best apply to different scenarios...
Evaluate the situation internally. Before going to the project client – especially if they are yet to ask for a replacement project manager – evaluate the situation internally. This means someone in senior leadership – the PMO Director if there is one and probably one or two others in senior leadership – needs to sit down with the project team and discuss the project and the leadership issues that have been going on. At this point, I am assuming that it's obvious that the project manager needs to go so they aren't likely part of this conversation... they will probably be part of a separate conversation that may include termination of their employment if the performance is that bad and the customer and project that valuable.
This meeting involves finding out the exact current status of the project, what issues are going on, what the team and other stakeholders think the customer concerns might be – especially with the project leadership – and what action or actions they would like to see taken.
Evaluate the situation with the project client.
Next, go to the client and discuss the plan or option to change leadership on the project. If the client has requested this change already, this step may need to happen before the internal meeting step because a rapid response to a project client concern is always extremely critical to the project. Finding out specifically what the issues are with leadership may be the best first step to finding the right fit to take over the project. You certainly don't want to make the situation worse by finding the wrong replacement that is just going to frustrate the project client even more.
Make the go, no-go decision.
The go, no-go decision on replacing the project manager is – at this point – likely already a done deal. But an official decision on the project and even the employment status of the failing project manager should happen now and be acted on accordingly. It doesn't need to be loud – in fact it should probably be kept as quiet as possible to maintain professionalism, but be firm in the action and stick to it.
Find the right fit to take on the failing project.
Next, the proper replacement resource needs to be found, quickly. No sense in delaying the enviable... and by this point the previous project manager has probably been relieved of his project duties and someone else – the business analyst or technical lead – is “managing” the project in the interim. I'm not talking about a long time here... this all needs to take place over the course of maybe 1-2 days because drawing it out any further can cause further client issues to arise and could possibly be causing the project to take on extra costs and miss an important deadline. Time is not on your side – act quickly to keep the project moving forward. Having a business analyst or technical lead or even an interim project manager who won't be the final replacement is a very undesirable situation to have going on.
Onboard the new leadership with the least amount of disruption.
Finally, bring the new resource on board quickly – preferably sitting in on a meeting or two before fully taking over the project. Before that happens, the important thing is to fully brief the new project manager on where the project stands and what the major issues are with the project. It is also very important to get the new resource as much documentation about the project as possible – the statement of work (SOW), the current project schedule, any issues lists and change order documentation as well as the financial / budget analysis and resource forecast. Much of this can probably be provided through giving the new PM the last few project status reports... unless project status reporting and documentation or budget or resource management is one of the key weaknesses of the outgoing project manager (which sadly is often the case). If that is the case, then the new resource will have to jump aboard and learn as much about the project as possible as they are actively taking over. Not the most desirable situation, but it happens.
Summary / call for input
No one likes these situations. Sure, it can be an ego boost if you're called in to save an ailing project. But half the time leadership looking more for an available warm body to take on the project rather than seeking out the absolute best fit and right person for the situation. It's about availability unless the client is one they can't afford to lose and you're the top PM in the organization... then they may pull you from whatever project you're on to take on the Titanic. The risk, of course, is to sink both projects. But the upside is that both projects may conclude successfully. Overall company leadership has to determine if that is a risk they want to take on.
Readers – what is your experience in this situation? Have you been involved – good or bad – with this type of project scenario? What steps did you take and how successful was it? Please share your experiences and discuss.