A reality that most project managers face only later in their careers is that they’ll have to take over a project if not many. Sometimes, even three 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 transferred to a project with 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 get up to date with the project quickly. The clock is ticking, and there are minimal chances that the previous project manager planned 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 to have a fair shot at steering the project in the right direction. In the worst-case scenario, you’ll discover 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 regarding its goals and objectives and the benefits that must be delivered to the client. If it doesn’t exist—a big red flag, inspect the project management plan to see how the project is documented in terms of the tasks allocated at each phase.
2. Analyze any available documentation and metrics
Do a check-up regarding project progress, delayed deadlines, and how many resources have already been spent. The project schedule and the latest 2-3 status reports should be enough to determine if the project is on track. Ask for the resource forecast to get a clear view of the remaining project hours, and go through the budget analysis to ensure you don’t need extra funds. This means that project profitability, though not stressed enough, is an essential part of project management.
Understanding how to measure your costs against your initial project when taking over a new project is crucial. If these documents are missing, you must create them from scratch and use past projects to benchmark your estimations.
Note: If you’re new and don’t know what to do with all this work and tools, check out our guide with various examples of project management methodologies.
Are you looking for a simple online tool to use for resource distribution? Check these tools for automatic resource scheduling.
3. Meet the sponsor/PMO
The best way to learn about a project’s specifics is directly from its source — the sponsor or PMO who appointed you. Have a 1:1 meeting with them to find out their take on the project and what expectations they have from you regarding communication and involvement. Be cautious, though. Let them talk for the most part to see if they are championing the project, treating it as a high priority, or dealing with it reactively. Now is also the time to ask for their support since they’re responsible for the overall lead.
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 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, you must earn their trust as the new leader. Have team members share their everyday 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, not just a higher authority. Be transparent. Tell them what you know about the project and in 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; it is time to create a transition plan. With the documentation and information gained from meetings, develop a set of next steps to bring the project under your control. Look for 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 not aligned with the overall scope and objectives. It’ll be much more painless this way to take over a project.
Note: Gantt chart planning software is an excellent tool for re-planning—and planning in general. Check out the best tools of this type for 2024.
It’s not easy to execute these steps, but they’ll put you in a better position to take over a project and deliver it successfully. The learning continues, though. Be humble and lead from the trenches, ensuring everyone understands your vision and how you will achieve it. Take responsibility for the present conditions without blaming the previous project manager or the team. From now on, you must be the project manager, raise morale, and motivate your team to boost productivity.
Don’t forget to download your free printable checklist with the 6 Steps to Take Over A Project Successfully.
Andrei Țiț is a product marketer at Ahrefs. He has been involved in product marketing at various SaaS companies for over six years, specializing in content marketing and short-form video. In his free time, he enjoys cooking and traveling.