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Inheriting a Project? Five Steps to a Smooth Transition

Conventional wisdom dictates that project manager should lead the project for the whole duration of the project – since creation of the charter and up until closing phase is complete.

Usually this is the case. However, there are times when original project manager has to leave the project and new person is assigned to manage and control the resources. This can be a breaking point. Schedules can potentially slip because of the learning curve project manager has to go through to catch up, especially when project is well into the execution phase.

Every project is different, but there are five common steps a newly assigned project manager can follow to ensure a smooth transition with minimal impact on project schedule.

Step #1: Get familiar with project documentation

You have a steep learning curve ahead of you. The earlier you get familiar with the project, the faster you will get productive. Be careful not to spend your time reviewing irrelevant or not up-to-date documentation. Ask current project manager to point you to correct resources. Explain that you want to understand the project on a high level as part of your initial research and to come back with questions.

Step #2: Get knowledge transfer from the current project manager

It is your responsibility to ensure that you get all the information you need to lead the project. Understand how much time you have to make the transition and schedule meetings accordingly. You may have several weeks on your hands before current project manager leaves or just a few days.

At this point all of the basic questions may be answered by existing documentation. At the very least, you should have an answer to following questions:

  1. Where is all documentation being stored?
  2. Who is the project sponsor?
  3. Who are the subject matter experts (SMEs)?
  4. Are there any vendors involved? What are their contacts?
  5. Why is project being implemented – which business goals it supports?

Now you can dig deeper to understand project specifics and get an answer to following questions:

  1. What is project’s schedule?
  2. Is project divided into phases? If so, what are the future phases and is there documentation for them?
  3. What is the budget?
  4. What are the identified risks and their triggers? What is sponsor’s risk tolerance?
  5. What are project assumptions and constraints?
  6. What is project’s current status? Is it slipping on time/budget/resources?
  7. How is project team getting along? Which group formation stage is the team currently in (forming/storming/norming/performing/adjourning)?
  8. Is there a conflict resolution strategy that proved to be working best for the team?
  9. Are there any vendor preferences you should be aware of? For example, some vendors may prefer to be contacted at certain times only or via specific method (they may have a portal to address questions).

Step #3: Get to know the product or service delivered by the project

If the project is past its planning phase, there are chances prototypes already exist for the product or service that project delivers. Schedule meetings with SMEs and see the demo. Learn the interfaces and processes. Find out why certain decisions were made. If product is software solution, ask for an access to the test environment and “play” with functionality. This way you will gain an understanding of the “end state”. You will learn terminology that team is using for the project. You will get a better feel of project complexity. All this will help with further project planning and risk anticipation.

Step #4: Get to know the project team

By now you may already met some or all of the project team members. They may have helped you with questions you had on documentation or you may have attended project status meetings. This step is not about meeting the project team, but rather about getting to know them and becoming part of the team.

Plan a team event. It does not have to be big. A team lunch may be sufficient or you can go bigger (bowling, picnic at the park nearby). You want to see how team members interact with each other and you want to gain their trust. Say that you are excited to work with the team and thank them for all the help you got so far. At this point the team may need some assurance that the project is still on track, even though there are changes in project leadership. Be open. Explain the team your plans for catching up with the project and be specific, outlining what was already done and what still needs to be done on your end to get up-to-speed. If you had similar situation from the past and it turned out to be a success, share it.

If despite your best efforts you feel there is still some resistance from the team, give it some time. Even team in performing stage can go back to storming, when new person (you) is introduced. Remain positive and do your best catching up with the project. You will get team’s trust eventually, once they see that you are working hard and determined to get up-to-date on all project aspects as soon as possible.

Step #5: Deal with incorrect decisions 

Now, when you have a good understanding of all project dependencies, risks and components, you may discover that some of the decisions are not working very well for the project, affecting its budget and schedule. Avoid the temptation of playing the blaming game and focus on problem resolution instead. Find out:

  1. Why the decision was made? Perhaps there were some unknowns at that time.
  2. Are the corrective steps possible? If there is a contract in place, some changes may be extremely expensive and difficult.
  3. What is the worst case scenario, if no corrective steps are taken?
  4. What is the estimate in terms of cost, time and resources to take the corrective action?

Once you have done all your prep work, present your findings to the sponsor and SMEs. Your goal is not to rethink every project decision, but to address those that negatively affect the project and need to be fixed in order for the project to meet its established goals. If sponsor is not willing to introduce suggested changes in the middle of the project, suggest adjusted schedule and costs.

Your goal is to ensure you are comfortable with schedule and costs breakdown established by the previous project manager. If you are not, it is best to do the adjustments and present them to project sponsor for approval as soon as possible.

Being assigned to already ongoing project is different from being assigned to a brand new project. There are challenges of getting up-to-speed with documentation and project status. There are challenges of becoming a part of already established team and there are challenges of carrying forward the load of decisions you may not agree with. It takes patience and professionalism to become the new leader of an “old” project. The five steps outlined above are general guidelines. Stay positive carrying them out and good luck!

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