Clean up project mess
Cleaning up someone else's project mess is often a challenging task. Here are some tips to help.

Fixing someone else’s mess can drive me crazy. As a developer, I hated taking over someone else’s code, trying to make sense of their programming style, and then fixing it or modifying it to whatever new functionality was needed. For me, the same is true for projects. It’s nice to be called in to save the day. But really, it’s more rewarding to me to take a project from conception to rollout – hopefully, a successful rollout – than to try to patch a sinking ship. Or to even take over a functioning project in mid-stream.

But, it never fails that these needs come up and often we have no choice – depending on the type of organization we work for, of course – but to say ‘yes’ with a smile on our face. We can try to turn it down, but the pleas of “You’re the best PM for this task”, or “There’s no one else to take this on” usually guilt us into taking over the project. I know it’s always worked on me…unfortunately. The best thing to do is to have a plan. And for me, that involves going through a few steps to get as much up to speed as quickly as possible so I can do the best job I can of taking over the project and fixing whatever ails it – with the help of my team, of course.

These steps generally include:

1. Get the history.

The first step is always to get as much information on the project as you can. That will involve getting your hands on the statement of work (SOW) if one exists, the project kickoff information and presentation deck if one exists, and the most recent status reports and project schedule iterations. The most recent schedule might suffice, but getting project status reports covering the most recent 2-3 months would be a good idea so you can see what issues have been out there for awhile and what assignments have been made and what progress has actually been reported. The goal is to put yourself in front of the project client as soon as you can and as seamlessly as you can – as if you’ve always been there (but didn’t cause this mess in the first place, of course).

Then, familiarize yourself with the resource forecast and budget health and forecast. Those will be two critical things you’ll be managing and they may not be in good order. Prepare yourself for the worst but hope for the best.

2. Know the project client.

Next, meet with your team and get as much info on the project and the project client as you can. How has the customer been so far on the project? Easy to work with? Demanding? Are there certain buttons you should know not to ever push? Are there key preferences they have that you should be sure to meet? Most of all, of course, you want to get your team’s overall impression of the project, its issues, and how best to fix the project and keep (or make) the project customer satisfied.

3. Assess the team.

The third key step is to truly assess the team. They are probably the right team and the right skill set to make this all happen…but there’s no guarantee of that and now is the time to assess that. And, they may be right under ideal circumstances, but you may need some additional ‘specialists’ at least in the short term to get through current issues and get the project back on track. Figure out what resources you need now…over the next couple of months…and what you need for the rest of the project. You may have to make some tough choices and you may have to use negotiation skills to get what you need. Let senior management know that you’re going to do your best to save the project, but you need the right team and the right chemistry to make that happen.


You can’t save every project out there and you probably can’t save every project that’s handed to you to fix. But you can do the best job possible. And that always involves doing your best to shorten the learning curve and getting up to speed quickly and establishing authority and control of the project. If you can’t make that happen, then you have no business even stepping in and trying to right the ship. It won’t always work. If it does, you may get applauded as the savior, or it may just be business as usual. If it doesn’t, then you may be closely associated with the failure even though you came in when it was already sinking. Such is the life of a project manager. But it is always challenging…and it can be very rewarding.

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