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What to Do When You’ve Been Dumped into a Sinking Project

Picture this: youve just been hired at a new company, or have already worked there for several years. Youre told that youll be managing an ongoing project. You get a little nervous, and rightly so. Jumping in mid-project is never fun. Then youre told (confidentially) that this project is not going as well as projected, and that the previous project manager has either been fired, or left the company. Now the dread sets in. Youve already committed though, so you march into your first orientation meeting like the trooper you are.

But what do you do after that?

Find Out Why Youre There

The expected answer is salvage the project, but the reality might be a lot more complex than that. How big of a problem are you facing? Is this project truly salvageable, with management giving you the resources to get it back on track? Are you expected to save it with whatever you have on hand? Or are you just trying to minimize the fallout from when it eventually fails, like a pilot gliding into a crash landing?

The answer you get will shape your approach to the project and will help clue you in on your teams morale, the companys commitment, and the clients attitude. Go into the project blind, and youre going to be overwhelmed with nasty surprises.

Get Your Bearings

Spend your first day (or even the days before your first day) finding out as much as you can. Dont even hold a meeting. Find the most reliable source on your team, take him aside, and ask for a no-BS assessment of the project, whats been done, and where its headed. Use this time to find out the right questions to ask so that when you do have your first team meeting, you already know whats what and no one can mislead you to cover things up. Don’t forget though, even the most reliable person on the team will have personal bias (even if it’s inadvertent) so you will have to factor that in when absorbing the information.

Act Like You Started It

Own the project. Even if youre only brought in as a fall guy, youre still being paid for your time. You owe it to the organization and your team to give your best effort. Management is not watching the project. They know its doomed to fail. Theyre watching you and seeing how you handle the situation. If you can give a good showing when everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, then how much of a success will you be when things go right? You can prove yourself in a failing project just as much as a succeeding one, provided that the project is not failing because of you!

Prepare for the Aftermath

Some projects are completely salvageable, and can be saved with good crisis management and a lot of elbow grease. Others are doomed from the start, with the only difference in outcome being whether or not the client is going to get a refund. And then there are the compromise failures, where some aspect of the project is sacrificed in order to get the rest out the door.

Whichever the outcome, you have to prepare for how its going to affect you and your team. Document everything so that you can do an effective post-mortem. Distance yourself from failures that arent yours, or your teams fault. Establish expectations for the client so that when the hammer does fall, they arent totally taken by surprise.

And dont forget to update your resume, just in case.

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