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The happy path for a project manager is shepherding their project’s delivery from start to finish. Just like raising one’s own child to the point where they have become an independent adult, there is a sense of accomplishment which you only get from having been there at the beginning and witnessing the successes at the end.

But as with all journeys, there are exceptions.

I’ve written articles in the past which provided guidance when taking over an active project from a departing project manager or when preparing to transition an active project to another project manager, but what about the situation where you are just a temporary custodian, assigned to keep a project going until it is time to “resume our regular scheduled programming”?

This happens more often than you might think resulting from personal absences such as sickness or jury duty or a business need such as the current project manager having to put out some fires with a client they had worked with before.

While this type of assignment possesses many of the same risks as permanently taking over a project, it generates some unique ones including:

  • Resistance from your team members and other stakeholders resulting from the double whammy of feeling sad about losing the previous project manager combined with the natural reluctance to develop strong working relationships with someone who isn’t going to be working with them for the full duration of the project.
  • Knowledge gaps as there might be less motivation on the part of the departing project manager and supporting leadership to fully prepare you for taking over since they know you are just a temporary player.
  • Reduced commitment or motivation on your part given the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation. If you do a better job than the assigned project manager, you might just make them look bad or they might just get the credit for your hard work. If the project fails on your watch, you will be an easy scapegoat for the assigned project manager.

So what are some ways to respond to these risks?

  • If you have motivational concerns about taking on the role, acknowledge these, and seek guidance from a trusted peer or mentor if you feel they will affect your performance. Be prepared to suck it up, but also be honest with yourself. If you feel you can’t give the role the commitment it will take, do the right thing and recuse yourself.
  • Ensure that expectations for your role have been well defined, realistic and are clearly communicated to all key stakeholders.
  • Push for a thorough transition of knowledge and if you don’t feel comfortable with the knowledge you’ve gained, escalate the concern till it is addressed or at the very least document the risks of it and get senior leaders to accept the impacts of these risks in writing.
  • Take the time to understand the working agreements which the assigned project manager had established with the team and with key stakeholders. Remember that your arrival will reset team dynamics back to the forming, storming an norming phases for a period of time. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Attitude is everything.

Being a substitute project manager might feel like a thankless assignment at first, but if you treat it as an opportunity to showcase your flexibility, versatility and resilience, it might be a catalyst which lands you a much better role in the future.

(If you liked this article, why not pick up my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on and on as well as a number of other online book stores)

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