How to take over an existing project [Free checklist]

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Consider this. You’ve recently been asked to take over an existing project. Your handover hasn’t been that great.

The previous project manager might have moved on to do something else and you’ve got the project as part of an internal reshuffle of resources. Or they might have left the company.

Either way, you’ve got a team waiting on your direction. The sponsor wants confidence that you’ve got everything in hand. And you’re staring at a system full of project documents and some emails that have been forwarded on.

How can you check what you’ve got and what needs to be done next?

First, don’t panic. Let me guide you through how to assess the state of the project you’ve inherited. We’ve got a lot to get through!

I know it’s a lot to take in. At the bottom I’ve got a free printable checklist for you. Scroll down and you can download it instantly.

If this is all new to you, check out PMI Kickoff, a free overview of all things project management that will help get you started.

Why you need a ‘Take over a project’ checklist

Whenever you take on a project that was started by someone else you need to:

  • Understand the health of the project
  • Ensure that sufficient planning has been completed so that the onward direction is clear.

By ‘health’ I mean what kind of a state the project is in. You won’t know if the risk log is sound and the resource planning sensible until you investigate.

Best case, you’ll find out that the last project manager did a good job and that everything is in order.

Worst case, you’ll find out that there are hardly any plans, documents and methods of control over the work. And you’ll conclude that you’ll be terribly busy for the next few weeks.

Either way, you need to know. Here are 10 steps that will help you uncover the state of the project that you are taking on, along with actions to take if you find anything missing.

1: Check your role

First, establish the authority that the project manager (that’s now you) has on this project.

Is there a program manager and a program under which this project fits? If not, what authority has the project charter conferred upon you?

Understanding your roles and responsibilities is a good step and even if this isn’t documented it will help you make sure that all stakeholders are considered and your escalation paths are clear for when there are issues.

Action if not clear: Talk to your sponsor or line manager.

Elizabeth Harrin wearing a yellow top and navy jacket

2: Check there is a project overview

Is there a project overview statement or vision statement that explains the future state that this project is hoping to achieve? It’s fine not to have a detailed plan of how you are going to get there but you should a pretty clear idea of where ‘there’ is.

Action if it doesn’t exist: Write one. You probably have a lot more authority than you think to just do this and then pass it by the powers that be. Here are the instructions on how to write a project overview statement.

3: Check the project has objectives

Is there clarity around objectives? (Clearly, the answer should be yes!)

If you can’t find the objectives, it means there is much more work to do here to understand what the project is trying to achieve. Projects should have objectives that result in clearly defined outputs and benefits.

Action if they aren’t clear: Ask the project sponsor to hold a workshop on defining this and providing ultimate clarity for everyone. Or if they know it but haven’t documented it, write a paragraph – no need for lengthy meetings if everyone sort of knows but hasn’t seen it on paper.

4: Get a copy of the plan

Is there a high level project plan?

You might find a project schedule. It’s probably a few colored boxes in an Excel spreadsheet saying which month or quarter you are expecting to work on each phase within the project, aligned to the major tranches of work.

The absence of a detailed plan might not be the end of the world.

We used to plan our program about 3 weeks at a time which I’m sure isn’t best practice but we had a very clear vision of where we wanted to get to and everything we did moved us in the right direction, even if we couldn’t see past the end of the month.

For the objectives you’ve uncovered, you should be able to get a feel for what level of planning is sufficient. You need enough planning in place to be able to structure the work of the people involved and hit any hard targets such as fixed delivery dates.

The only way you’ll know what planning has been done already is if you dig through the archives. Spend time with people talking about their tasks and how they track and manage the work.

You might not find a Gantt chart but you might not find the situation is as scary as you first thought either.

Action if there is no schedule: Get together with your team and write a high level plan.

You can leave the detailed stuff until your review is finished but having something at high level will eventually inform your detailed project planning for the next 6 months.

5: Review the governance structure

Is there a governance structure? Who is your project sponsor? What’s the reporting schedule? What are the internal sign off hoops you have to go through?

If there aren’t any that would worry me: light bureaucracy is good but someone should be providing some oversight.

Action if there is no formal governance: My first point of call would be your project sponsor. They should be providing the direction and accountability.

For other areas of governance such as reporting and approval levels, talk to your PMO and get these in place.

6: Review the budget

Is the budget approved? How do you spend it? How much has been spent already?

Action if there is no budget plan or information: Back to the PMO or your Finance team. In a push, you can ask vendors to send you copies of contracts and paid invoices.

Use the, “I’m new to the project and gosh the filing is in a shocking state! Could you please do me a massive favor and…” approach. This has worked well for me in the past if you can get over the fact you’re asking questions that make you look a bit dim.

7: Establish resource requirements

What resources are available to the program, now and in the future? You want to find out the hours each person has available to the project. It’s better to know now if you are going to be short staffed. It will help with planning.

Action if you can’t find out: Talk to the PMO again. Or if you don’t have one, the team leaders of the people you have on the team. And the team themselves.

Need more resources? Here are some tips for securing resources on your project.

8: Confirm the big picture

Where does the project fit in the overall business strategy? In other words, it could be a lot of money but is it the CEO’s top priority? If not at least you’ll know where you stand when it comes to competing for resources.

Action if you don’t know: You can’t change the priority of the project but if you cannot get a clear answer on where it fits in company priorities that would be a red flag for me.

Go back to the PMO, they should be prioritizing initiatives. If they don’t do this, or you don’t have an equivalent group that does prioritize work, you should be turning to your manager for clarification.

9: Review the communications plan

What communications structure is in place? If this is a transformative project you’ll have a lot of stakeholders at project and (potentially) program level.

Action if there is no comms plan: Sort this out as soon as possible. A comms plan is not difficult to pull together and best to get it in place before you get too much further with the program. Here’s a guide on how to write a project communications plan.

10: Get copies of all existing documentation

Review any existing documentation. However you do it, you’ll have to use your best office politics to uncover what has been done and what’s missing. Check all the Teams channels, ask the outgoing project manager what they have on their personal drives. In particular, look for:

  • Risks log
  • Actions log
  • Dependency log
  • Issues log
  • Changes log and any information about changes approved
  • The last status report.

I found that coming back from maternity leave was an excellent excuse to ask lots of ‘stupid’ questions to ‘remind myself’ of what we were doing and to get back up to speed.

You might not have that excuse, but taking over a new project certainly gives you some scope to ‘check’ what the latest is in various areas.

Action if you can’t find any: Panic! No, only joking. You’ll have to start creating some pretty sharpish. Start with this list (and templates) for the core project documents.

Essential project documents bundle

OK, now you know what is there and what is missing.

Find out why elements are missing

I would also ask around and find out why none of this stuff has been done. Is it that they don’t have time? Or the skills, experience, interest? The company culture has a lot of influence over what is done and what is ignored not followed up.

It’s important to match what you are trying to do and the standards to which you want to do it to the company culture. If you try to put a very formal project structure in place in a normally informal culture then you won’t get very far.

Next steps

Now you know where you stand. You know which parts of the project are OK and which look a bit dodgy. This is great news! This is the part where I start to feel like I’ve got my arms around a project, so it’s really positive, even if it feels a bit overwhelming at times.

You can focus your energy on getting a decent plan, or setting up the governance structure, or dealing with the budget – whatever you think is the most important part to get right, right now.

Involve your team, be transparent in what you are doing and why, and keep your sponsor informed.

Above all, never blame the last project manager or the team for the mess you are in now. They were probably doing the best job they could at the time.

If you think that they weren’t, read my Ultimate Guide To Getting People To Take Responsibility At Work.

Good luck! You’ll soon have that new project under control. Don’t forget your free printable: the How To Take Over A Project Checklist. Access the Resource Library here and I’ll message you back a link where you can download the templates.

Further sources of help

If your work so far has uncovered things that concern you, then consider investing some time in a formal healthcheck process.

At one end of the scale you’ve got models like Joanne Flinn’s in her book The Success Healthcheck for IT Projects. This is in-depth and structured and probably quite time consuming, which is a luxury you might not have.

At the other end of the formality scale you’ve got something like Peter Taylor’s Get Fit with The Lazy Project Manager book which will give you a practical approach to structuring a healthcheck.

You can also talk to your mentor (you can book me for an hour chat if you want someone impartial to talk to!).

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How to take over an existing project [free checklist]