How to Recover A Troubled Program

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There’s only one thing worse than being told bad news, and that is being told about bad news late. 

When a program is failing, you should define the problem and potential solutions, and alert stakeholders at the first sign of trouble, according to LeRoy Ward, Executive VP at ESI.

His ‘Managing and Saving Programs in a Changing World’ webinar covers 5 steps for project recovery.

Ward started off by explaining what a ‘troubled program’ is. There are several things that can go wrong in program management:

  • Business case deterioration: the program started off with a good business case but it no longer stacks up.
  • Stakeholder evolution: people change and new leaders at the top change the direction of the program.
  • Technical failure: this creates a program integration risk as what you are building might not sit in the organization’s architecture any longer.
  • Resource collapse: either in the form of strikes or a key resource leaving.

Focus on gaining control

Don’t focus on the wrong issue. The wrong issue is how you can catch up and finish on time. The right issue is how do you finish at all and gain something realistic benefit without ending up with a failed project.

You need to regain control. ‘Control’ is the scope, dates and roles on the program which have been lost in through planning or execution in the first place. The way out of this is to make big, targeted changes quickly.

This conflicts with the advice Scott Berkun gives in his book, Making Things Happen. He warns that if you make large changes you push the project off course and it can take a while before you see what you have done.

Then you over-correct by making another big change and you just weave from one crisis to another because you can’t keep your project on course. So be careful about making big changes on a project that isn’t going that far wrong.

Problems facing failing programs

Ward identified several problems faced by failing programs:

  • Completing an accurate assessment of program problems is difficult for the program management team because they lack objectivity. Using an outside assessment team creates objectivity. Bring in technical specialists as required.
  • There will be pressure from stakeholders to commit to a new schedule. Measuring progress in small steps will help tremendously.
  • It takes time to determine the work remaining. Data about how far off the original estimates were is needed to make accurate forecasts.
  • You need to sustain progress while planning recovery. Additional temporary resources will be needed to do this. The program manager should direct the current workflow plus do all the work required to make progress with the recovery – no easy task!

Ward cautioned against declaring victory too soon. Sustained control is necessary to prove that something has been turned around. It takes teamwork to turn a program around and then keep it moving in the right direction.

If you seeing any of the problems faced by troubled programs then you need a project recovery plan to get back on track.

The five-step project recovery plan

Here’s the five-step ESI process for getting out of trouble. The whole approach assumes you have been parachuted in to fix someone else’s failing program.

You can adapt the steps if you are trying to turn your own program around, or make the steps smaller to rescue a project instead of a whole program.

Assessment Phase

Step 1: Define Charter

Duration: 1-2 days

This formally sanctions the existence of an assessment and project recovery effort. It provides the assessment and recovery lead with the proper authority to complete the activities necessary to develop an assessment plan.

Define the charter with the sponsor and steering committee. The charter should cover:

  • Program history and sensitivities (although I wouldn’t write all this down)
  • Assessment approach: how many people are you going to interview, in individual meetings or in group sessions and so on.
  • An action plan with dates.

Then get it all agreed – which is what the charter is for. In this step you would also initiate contact with the program and project teams.

Step 2: Develop assessment plan

Produce your plan for assessing what is going on in the troubled program. Aim to allow the assessment team to perform their assessment quickly, ensure accurate findings, and minimize distractions for the project team. After all, you want to keep going with things that are progressing well.

During this time you will:

  • Establish a team
  • Review and analyze the assessment model (how are we going to review documents, how are we going to move forward with analysis)
  • Review critical documents
  • Develop assessment plan.

This is a formal step, so get the recovery plan signed off.

Step 3: Conduct assessment plan

Duration: 2-5 days

Carry out the activities on your plan. Determine the true current status of the program and constituent projects. Look for major threats, opportunities and problems. You begin to consider the recovery as well as who would be on your recovery team.

The work required at this step includes:

  • Establishing a war room
  • Assembling the team
  • Implementing the assessment plan (interviews and document review)
  • Aggregating and ranking the findings from the most problematic to least problematic
  • Validating, updating and finalizing your findings with the program team and sponsor.

Recovery Phase

Step 4: Develop recovery plan

This step leads to a plan to get to a functioning program. You establish a road map and process to achieve the goals, and continue to build confidence and morale.

Prepare a plan that everyone sees as realistic and achievable: this helps build confidence. There is no Plan B for this recovery plan: this is it! The goal is to save the program from loss and restore it to usefulness, preventing total failure along the way.

  • Produce an achievable schedule
  • Re-establish customer management confidence
  • Negotiate a new baseline

Step 5: Conduct recovery plan

Now execute your recovery plan to get the program back on track or at least delivering something valuable. This includes validating all the estimates and checking how people arrived at them because it helps you produce an accurate forecast for program completion.

Through all of this what you are trying to do is begin with the end in mind: a program that is no longer in recovery. If you keep that objective at the heart of everything you do you’ll get to a successful conclusion. That might be:

  • A project or program that is shut down
  • A project or program that is back on track
  • A project or program that isn’t going to deliver everything the sponsor hoped for but will turn in something of value.

Any of those options are OK because the uncertainty has gone.

If you’ve read this far, click through to my definitive guide to project success criteria next. It gives you a breakdown of how to define success which might help you avoid a failing project in the first place.