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The Director’s Guide to Getting Your Derailed Project Back on Track

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One common way to cut costs on a smaller-scale project is to engage a Director, Manager, or another lead role to run a project instead of employing a professional Project Manager for the task. Not only is it a way to save funding, but it is also a way for an up-and-coming leader to prove themselves when it comes to leading a team. As a bonus, it happens to be a great learning experience too. One thing that is alive and well in project management for professionals and novices alike is Murphy’s Law – if anything wrong can happen, it will! Whether you are the one leading the project yourself or mentoring one of those up and coming stars, read on for some great tips to getting that derailed project, big or small, back on track.

Gather information

This is an information-seeking mission that you must embark. The main goals when it comes to information gathering are first to understand what went wrong, who is or will be impacted by what went wrong, and the root cause of the problem. At Lighthouse, we are big Stephen Covey fans, and two of the 7 Habits come into play here – Habit 2 – “Begin with the end in mind,” and Habit 5 – “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

What happened?

Have a full understanding of what exactly went wrong, and understand it in a way that you may translate that into layman’s terms when you relay the information to your sponsors and stakeholders.

Who is impacted?

Once you understand and can translate what happened, the next mission is to determine who will be impacted by the issue if it remains as it is right now. Learning the level of impact will help you to judge the criticality and prioritize efforts to correct problems.

Root cause analysis

The knee jerk reaction is often, “Who did this?” instead of “How did this happen?” but you should address any root cause questions only after the problem and those impacted are fully understood. Sometimes this is easier said than done, and an excellent opportunity for lessons learned either way. Here are a couple of favorite “untechnical” methods for getting to the bottom of a problem.

The five “Why’s?”

If you’ve been around young children before, they will ask, “Why?” a million times until they understand something, forcing us to be more specific in our answers. This technique works as well, if not better, when adults use the same method the kids use, for it forces specificity in the same way. It usually takes about five times asking “Why?” to get to the answer, but don’t be afraid to go a few more “Why’s?” deeper if you must.

Break down contributing factors

An Ishikawa, or Fishbone Diagram, can be used to help break down all contributors to the result, usually broken down to people, process, and technology to start as the initial fishbones. Once those are defined, the next step is to start breaking down each one to identify the possible contributors.

Mind mapping

This technique is also known as a “spaghetti diagram,” and for a good reason. Participants sit around each other at a table with a paper in front of them and start writing their thoughts on the paper as they discuss the relationships around different contributing factors, drawing lines to connect them. The result is often a hot mess at first glance, but it makes sense as the discussion progresses. The leader can quickly draw up a legible copy (perhaps a fishbone) that they can better translate to reporting parties.

As a leader, it is essential when exploring a root cause, that the goal is understanding rather than blame (Remember – Seek First to Understand). Corrective action may be appropriate for an individual as a lesson learned, but the exercise should not be the purpose for a witch hunt. Instead, focus on identifying causes, so they are soon corrected going forward.

Structure your findings

Once the problem is identified, and options are laid out to discuss, the next step is documenting those findings clearly to share with all parties, from stakeholders up to the sponsors and executives. It’s vital that the terminology in your documentation matches the knowledge level of those reading.

Create another living document to capture these, and other lessons learned going forward. Trust that this will not be the only issue identified in the life of the project. Categorize the topics to group with like kinds. Some examples you might use for categories are process, technology, and stakeholders.

Present options

Once your facts are straight, and you can confidently talk to the problem, the next step is to present possibilities of remedy to the stakeholders and executive body. You need to speak clearly about the problem and possible solutions, complete with any effects that come with those solutions. The goal is to get a decision on how to best move forward from here. Negotiations may occur about changes in the project scope, cost, or timeline to move forward. Be sure to help your participants weigh out all options effectively.

Build a new plan

Once the stakeholders and executive team agree on changes to progress the project forward, the next step is to modify the project plan to accommodate those changes. When the project plan is updated, share the changes with the rest of the project team, with particular attention to those whose work is directly affected and how it will change.

Build a dream team

While you gather information, you’ll quickly identify who the strong, positive advocates are of the project. When it’s time to rally the troops to restart the project, you want that coalition of people who can positively influence the outcome to spring to action. The idea behind your alliance is to drive any changes throughout the project and maintain alignment and commitment with stakeholders. As you re-launch your plan and notice ambiguity lurking, count on your positive coalition of leadership support to keep things moving, and the team engaged. To regain lost momentum, make small adjustments, and celebrate quick wins as soon as they present themselves.

Rebuild the remaining team

With a significant change in your project and shifting priorities and timelines, you may find yourself needing to rebuild your team to meet the needs of this restart. Make the necessary changes as required of internal and external resources. Look beyond knowledge and skills and factor in personality, leadership, and motivational behaviors. You are building a team that has the guts, confidence, and courage to deliver with relentless drive.

There is a multitude of factors and circumstances that can derail a project of any magnitude. What the leader accomplishes when things aren’t perfect is a real example of their leadership, creativity, and initiative, even more than when details flow perfectly.

We are there when you need us

Lighthouse Technologies prides ourselves on our combination of efficiency and quality of testing, bringing exceptional value to the results of any software project. Our level of efficiency may even be a benefit to your timeline. We often use these techniques to help clients solve hard problems.  Ask us how!

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