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There’s only one thing worse than being told bad news, and that is being told about bad news late.  When a program is failing, you should define the problem and potential solutions, and alert stakeholders at the first sign of trouble, according to LeRoy Ward, Executive VP at ESI.

I attended ‘Managing and Saving Programs in a Changing World’, an audio/Webex conference with Ward recently.  Last week I wrote about the first half of the presentation, managing change program .  This is what Ward had to say about recovering troubled programs.

Ward started off by explaining what a ‘troubled program’ is.  There are several things that can go wrong in program management:

  • Business case deterioration:  the program started off with a good business case but it no longer stacks up.
  • Stakeholder evolution:  people change and new leaders at the top change the direction of the program.
  • Technical failure:  this creates a program integration risk as what you are building might not sit in the organization’s architecture any longer.
  • Resource collapse:  either in the form of strikes or a key resource leaving.

So what can you do?

Don’t focus on the wrong issue.  The wrong issue is how you can catch up and finish on time. The right issue is how do you finish at all and gain something realistic benefit.

You need to regain control.  ‘Control’ is the scope, dates and roles on the program which have been lost in through planning or execution in the first place.  The way out of this is to make big, targeted changes quickly.

This conflicts with the advice Scott Berkun gives in his book Making Things Happen .  He warns that if you make large changes you push the project off course and it can take a while before you see what you have done. 

Then you over-correct by making another big change and you just weave from one crisis to another because you can’t keep your project on course.  So be careful about making big changes on a project that isn’t going that far wrong.

Ward identified several problems faced by failing programs:

  • Completing an accurate assessment of program problems is difficult for the program management team because they lack objectivity.  Using an outside assessment team creates objectivity.  Bring in technical specialists as required.
  • There will be pressure from stakeholders to commit to a new schedule.  Measuring progress in small steps will help tremendously.
  • It takes time to determine the work remaining.  Data about how far off the original estimates were is needed to make accurate forecasts.
  • You need to sustain progress while planning recovery.  Additional temporary resources will be needed to do this.  The program manager should direct the current workflow plus do all the work required to make progress with the recovery – no easy task!

Ward cautioned against declaring victory too soon.  Sustained control is necessary to prove that something has been turned around.  It takes teamwork to turn a program around and then keep it on track.

Read next: 5 steps to recover a troubled program .

This article first appeared at Rebel’s Guide to Project Management

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