5 steps to Turnaround management and recovering a project in Crisis

Over 10 years back, when I moved into project management roles in technology, I happened to get into a large account that was in major trouble. For close to a year we toiled, struggled as a team, burnt the midnight oil and eventually turned around the engagement, into what was considered a spectacular success story.

I was rewarded by being thrust into more troubled projects :) Crisis management & Turnaround was a common theme of almost every account I had managed for about 6 years hence. While these years were extremely stressful, I learnt a great deal through these experiences — managing people, achieving timelines, juggling complex deliverables and handling a variety of clients. Subsequently, I have often dipped into experiences from these years to reflect and draw learnings on facing new challenges.

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I will share some of these learnings across future posts themed on Project Management. This post is about a standard recipe to Turnaround management , one that I’ve internalized as an approach to handling a project in trouble, and that I’ve refined over the years. In simple terms, it is a 5-step process:

1. Assess situation & identify the ‘real’ issues

A project is in trouble for some real reason, and the first step is to do a thorough assessment to find out why. While it is tempting to get judgemental based on one’s biases and jump into quick fixes, it is essential to take in a dispassionate view of the situation. What often helps is to empathise with the team and the client, hear their side of the story and try looking at things from their perspective.

This is a critical first step to unearth the ‘real’ underlying causes, tangible or intangible, by taking in a strategic or bird’s-eye view. Finding the source-of-fire is more critical, rather than wasting limited energy by attempting to put-out-every-flame in view. I’ve seen disasters where managers come in with a biased opinion, try to force-fit their non-grounded solution and end up on a prolonged wild-goose chase, just because they didn’t do a thorough assessment to start with.

2. Action for the short AND long term

While assessment is important, the time for reaction in such critical project situations is usually very limited. With things burning everywhere, situation slipping out of control every day and escalation channels getting overused, people would naturally look up to you to do something quick. One needs to demonstrate urgency, quickly prioritize a list of actions to be taken and hit the ground running. This action list must be dynamic and be tailored in parallel with the ongoing assessment from step#1.

It is crucial to identify a mix of short-term or tactical actions and some long-term ones, that would bring about marked improvements in the mid to long term, and get you to stability. I’ve seen managers make the mistake of spending their entire energy on operational, day-to-day fixes without architecting changes in the long run. They eventually wear out running the daily treadmill, and give up on the marathon.

3. Build trust and celebrate the early wins

In a crisis situation, one of the crucial things in short supply is trust & confidence — both within your team, the client’s, and between them. There would be several crucial stakeholders who have already given up all hope, and are just menially trudging along. A turnaround is virtually impossible if you don’t take the existing people along, no matter what planning you do or what resources you have at disposal.

You’re brought in for a reason, and one of the key things is to show progressive signs of change and give renewed hope to people. This can start with tiny, but visible victories. Set small goals, show visible signs of improvement, and start celebrating them. I’ve seen that this breathes in new hope in the project, people respond positively to the openness and even start owning up the future misses, which is a strong sign that things are looking up. One needs to be careful though, as a false hope or even one misstep in the trust department will have you written off, just as another failure.

4. Learn to ‘Say No’ and level-set expectations

One common thread and a potent cause I’ve seen in most troubled engagements is unrealistic expectations. This could be either due to clients getting excessively demanding, and/or the vendor teams over-committing which leads to an unhealthy situation of unsustainable targets. Its surprising that when the trust factor depletes, clients who were once supportive & friendly soon suspect every move and become demanding, largely because they have lost confidence on the team’s assessment of a reasonable target.

Its the job of a turnaround specialist to level set expectations with the client as well as the internal teams, and this is one of the toughest things to do. When clients are deeply dissatisfied, teams are low in confidence and tempers are flaring around, saying ‘No’ can look suicidal. This is where the 3 steps above come in handy — some trust must be built(#3) & actions shown on the ground(#2) before one can say ‘No’, and your assessment (#1) will tell you where to pull the strings and when to let go. But it must be done and its often you who would have to bite the bullets.

5. Ask for Additional support & exceptions

Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures. Whether its taking your team into confidence and putting in extra hours, albeit for a limited period. Or, asking for additional help from management. Or, re-negotiating targets with the client. I’ve seen managers trying to work within resource constraints & expectations set, prior to the crisis situation. These leaders work with a false sense of optimization, push harder indefinitely, and in the process burn out their team and themselves.

Its only fair that you ask for empowerment and additional authority, when you have a heightened responsibility. Your assessment should help identify the resources you need — whether its additional project budget, hardware, software, people or adjusted targets. Its not an easy job to get this buy-in and it may not happen at once. But, given the genuineness of your attempt, a sound assessment of the situation and visible early wins through confidence building measures, you should be able to sell your story and commandeer those crucial incremental resources.

From my experience, when the above 5 points are put to practice incrementally and iteratively, they help get out of a tight spot in any project. This should come handy in any small project setbacks, and not necessarily limited to a full-blown crisis. Finally, if you sign up for a turnaround job, make sure you’re in it for the long haul, since its going to be painful and demanding. But then there’s no better teacher than a tough experience!

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