A reality that most project managers face only later on in their careers is that they’ll have to take over a project, if not many. Sometimes even 3 months before the actual deadline. No need to feel like a scapegoat though, as this usually happens either because:
- The previous project manager was fired, removed from the project by the sponsor or client, or simply transferred to a project with a higher complexity,
- You have more appropriate skills and expertise to handle the current project than the previous project manager.
Whatever the reasons, you need to quickly get up to date with the project. The clock is ticking and there are very small chances that the previous project manager planned out the project the way you would have.
So where should you start?
Don’t dive in head first, of course.
You need to understand what has been planned and achieved so far so that you have a fair shot at steering the project into the right direction. In the worst case scenario, you’ll find out that the project has already been doomed and dodge the bullet (if possible).
Either way, here’s a checklist on how you can assess a project’s current health:
1. Read the project charter and project plan
Start by reviewing the project charter. This document will give you a sense of where the project is heading in terms of its goals and objectives, as well as the benefits that need to be delivered to the client. If it doesn’t exist – big red flag, by the way – inspect the project management plan to see how the project is documented in terms of the tasks allocated at each project phase.
2. Analyze any available documentation and metrics
Do a check-up in terms of project progress, delayed deadlines, and how many resources have already been spent. The project schedule together with the latest 2-3 status reports should be enough to determine if the project is on track or not. Ask for the resource forecast to get a clear view of the remaining project hours and go through the budget analysis as well, to make sure you don’t need extra funds. If these documents are missing, you’ll need to create them from scratch and use past projects as a benchmark for your estimations.
3. Meet the sponsor/PMO
The best way to learn about a project’s specifics is directly from its source: the sponsor or PMO that appointed you. Have a 1:1 meeting with them to find out their take on the project and what expectations they have from you, both in terms of communication and involvement. Be cautious though. Let them talk for the most part to see if they are championing the project and treat it as a high priority or deal with it in a reactive manner. Now is also the time to ask for their support, since they’re the ones responsible for the overall leadership.
4. Meet the previous project manager
If they’re still around. Like with sponsors, find out what they have to say about the project. Focus on the milestones that still need to be hit and the type of culture they fostered. Don’t throw blame at them for the project’s current condition. Assume a humble position to uncover details that might have slipped the documentation, like personality issues within the team or supplier contact lists. Don’t forget to leave the door open in case you need to clarify future points.
5. Meet the team
This is a tough spot to be in, now that the team has experienced a loss. Whether the previous project manager was praised or not, you need to earn their trust as the new leader. Have team members share their common experiences to identify the obstacles that need to be removed from their daily work. Also, make it clear that you’re part of the team and not just a higher authority. Be transparent. Tell them what you know about the project and on which areas you’d like their input. They’ll be more inclined to open up in front of you this way.
The due-diligence is over, time to create a transition plan. With the documentation at hand and the information gained from meetings, come up with a set of next steps that will bring the project under your control. Look out for any missing parts that might derail the project while focusing on the small-wins, like upcoming milestones. Even talk with the sponsor to re-adjust the project charter if you find points that are not in line with the overall scope and objectives. It’ll be much painless this way to take over a project.
It’s not so easy to execute on these steps, but they’ll put you in a better position to take over a project and deliver it successfully. The learning still continues though. Be humble and lead from the trenches, making sure everyone understands your vision and how you’re going to achieve it. Take responsibility for the present conditions without blaming the previous project manager or the team. From now on, it’s your duty to be the morale and project manager.