We Don’t Always Start Fresh
Project Management texts usually assume we’re starting at the beginning of a project, with control over scope, schedule, and resources. Frequently, project scope, resources, and schedule are already determined through strategic planning, Project Portfolio Management (PPM), or the project charter process. In other cases, we take on projects that are in progress. This can occur as a normal part of the project lifecycle as a hand-off from a project initiation team to a project delivery team or due to other circumstances. The existing Project Manager (PM) may be moving to a different, higher priority project, assuming other responsibilities within the organization, leaving the organization for other career opportunities, or leaving the project due to the problems that have arisen. In all these cases, the new PM is required to assess the current status of the project, update or create a plan leading to a successful conclusion of the project, and execute that plan through project completion.
There are specific things that a PM can do to improve their chances of successfully completing the ongoing project, regardless of its current state or delivery phase. While these will be covered in future articles, and in 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, in this article we will examine how likely it is for a PM to step into an ongoing project.
Assuming management of an ongoing project is a lot more common than many people think. All the PMs that I’ve met over the years, through work, at conferences, and online, have taken over projects that were already started. Industry results and surveys also show that the overwhelming majority of PMs have had to assume projects or programs that were already in flight. Close to 200 project managers responded in 2022 to an online global survey on their experience with joining projects that had already been started.
PMs are much more likely to take over existing projects than to start with a “clean slate.”
Roughly 93% of the PMs responding have had to take over a project that was already started at least once in their careers. There are significant differences and additional challenges when taking over projects that have already started. Despite these circumstances being very common, they are not routine and should not be treated as such. We need to recognize the challenges of joining a project that has already started, along with the typical challenges of managing projects.
How frequently does this happen?
Two-thirds (67%) of all the projects managed by these PMs had a different PM when they finished.
Far from being a rare occurrence, we should assume that most projects will have a change in leadership before they finish. How many PMs plan to hand over leadership to another PM? All too often, we assume that we will finish what we start, so if a change in leadership does occur, we are not prepared for it. Whether we are handing off the project to another PM, or if we are the incoming PM, the hand-off will be more challenging and less successful if we are not prepared for it.
Why is assuming management of an ongoing project different than starting a new project? Table 1-1 provides a brief listing of project characteristics, components, and key management decisions that are still being formulated when a project is initiated but are usually set once a project has started. We’ll discuss some of these issues, and how to handle them as an incoming PM, in future articles.
Table 1-1: New Projects Versus Ongoing Projects
|Preliminary or Approved
|Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM)
|May be defined, flexibility will vary
|Created and working
|May be open
|Being determined based on technology and delivery methodology selected
|Published and Approved
The results of the survey, discussions with PMs across the globe, and personal experience have all shown that we don’t always start on a project with a clean slate where we can work with the sponsor and business owner to establish the triple constraints. In fact, it is almost guaranteed that during our PM careers we will have to take over an ongoing project. The bad news is that this can be very different from initiating a project, with additional challenges that make it hard to succeed. The good news is that we are not alone in facing these challenges, and that there are proven techniques that greatly increase the likelihood of success. In addition to covering these in my book, we will address many of them in future articles.