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Getting the Call to Action – Taking Over a Project

We usually don’t identify projects that we want to take over and make a request. Instead, we are identified as a candidate to assist or take over an ongoing project. How should we proceed?


Our goal is to quickly assess the current situation, focusing on the executive or management level, to help us decide if this is an opportunity that we should take or if we should steer clear. Even if we cannot decline the opportunity, the information gathered here will help us plan our first steps and should help us determine the extent of executive commitment to the project and the way to improve it.


The most critical question to ask is, “Why are we changing the PM now?” The PM may have been moved to a more important assignment, transferred to a different position as part of their career growth, or may just be on extended leave. If one of these is the reason given, there may still be some challenges in taking over the project, but there aren’t any warning signs yet.


There may be answers that raise warning flags, such as “We just fired the PM.” Or “The PM quit unexpectedly.” These usually indicate a project with issues. Another red flag warning is when the customer (internal or external) has demanded a change in the PM. While this may just be a style or personality conflict between the individuals, there are often deeper issues.


Carefully consider the responses you’ve received to this first question before proceeding. Is this shaping up as a situation where you will be the next PM being replaced, potentially harming your professional reputation and career? Do there appear to be political games being played? If so, do you want to join the game? If you have to take the assignment, what precautions are needed?


The next question for the Project Sponsor and Business Owner, is “What does success look like?” If they cannot succinctly describe this, how can the project be successful? Even under Agile or Flow Methodologies, “do good stuff” is never enough guidance. All projects have objectives. While they may be modified through the course of the project (being “agile”), at any given point in time the current objective must be clear and understood by all the stakeholders. If you cannot establish a clear response to this question, this issue must be flagged.


A more difficult question to get a true answer to is, “What is the current status of the project?” The true status may not be known, and different stakeholders are likely to hold different views. At this stage, we want to determine what views are held by the key stakeholders. If negative views are expressed, this is an ideal time to lay the foundation for future requests for help or support.


If there seems to be a consensus that the project is challenged or adrift, an immediate follow-up question needs to be asked: “Should this project be terminated?” Get this option on the table to save a lot of time and effort later. We are not recommending that the project be terminated, though we may do so later after we’ve done a thorough review. We are reminding the executive team that this is an option they should be considering if they haven’t already done so.


If the decision is made to continue the next question is, “If it is not on track, what caused it to go off track?” We will get into the actual reasons as part of our project review later on. At this point, we want to discover the executive view. Do not assume that this initial view is 100% true, there are probably some facts that support it.

The remaining questions are focused on executive commitment to the project and our accepting the opportunity to join as the PM. They will lay the foundation for the next steps that you will take as you assume leadership of the project team.


We need to learn, “Why was I selected for this project?” The goal is to learn more about the project and why they are coming to you to take over. Is it just because you are available? Do you have specific skills and experience that they think are needed, or something else?


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Next, ask “What do you need from me to help this project succeed?” Essentially a follow-up to the previous question, we are identifying the knowledge, skills, time, and commitment that they expect us to bring to the project. Is the intent for us to carry the project through to completion? If the answer is no, follow up with, “What is the desired project status to trigger my transition out?” These answers will impact your plans for assuming responsibility for the project and how you will be viewed by both management and the delivery team.


The next two questions can indicate the likelihood of success. “What authority will I have over the project team? Over external teams or resources that we need to succeed?” A common problem with modern organizations is dispersed authority. Being responsible for a successful outcome without having commensurate authority over the resources and teams is not only difficult, it is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. Uncover any potential issues of this kind now, and be prepared to discuss why the organizational arrangements need to be changed.


Ask your manager, the Project Sponsor, and the Business Owner, “What will you do to help this project succeed?” If they appear indifferent or show a lack of commitment to project success, this is a clear sign that the project is unlikely to succeed. Be very careful about boarding the Titanic while the captain is eyeing the lifeboat.


Finally ask “Do I have the option to turn down this assignment?” The answer may be yes, in which case you need to decide based on your career goals, your current personal situation, and everything you’ve learned about the project to this point. If you decide to accept the opportunity, do so with the firm intention to do your best and to be fully committed to a successful outcome for the organization, the project, and the project team.


If the answer is that you have to take the assignment, be professional about it. This may be a good opportunity to request specific things you need to be successful—key personnel; increased authority; ability to request scope, schedule, and budget changes later; etc. Explain that you are going to do a thorough project review and discuss the results with the key stakeholders. That discussion may include recommendations for them to consider, including additional support. Set the groundwork for your review and that follow-up meeting, indicating that you cannot promise a successful project outcome before then.


For a more detailed discussion of how to handle a request to take over a project, see my book:  There’s A New Sheriff In Town: The Project Manager’s Proven Guide To Successfully Taking Over Ongoing Projects And Getting The Work Done , Fenelon, Martin J., eBook –


11 Questions to Ask Before Taking Over a Project

1.     Why are we changing the PM now?

2.     What does success look like?

3.     What is the current status of the project?

4.     If it is not on track, what caused it to go off track?

5.     Why was I selected for this project?

6.     What do you need from me to help this project succeed?

7.     Do you intend for me to stay as PM through the end of the project? If not, what is the desired project status to trigger my transition out?

8.     What authority will I have over the project team?

9.     What authority will I have over external teams or resources that we need to succeed?

10.  What will you do to help this project succeed?

11.  Do I have the option to turn down this assignment?