Project Rescue Tools

Rescues of failing projects are a regular part of the project manager’s job. The most important early decision you make is what project rescue tools to use. You must recognize up front, that a normal “PMBOK” (Project Management Body of Knowledge) tool set won’t work.  It involves too much paper, too many meetings and too little action. So here is a set of project rescue tools that will let you gain control of the disaster and fix it. 

Project Rescue Tools: Identify Failure Causes

Let’s say you are assigned to rescue the failing XQ-17 rollout project. It’s a critical new product for your company.  The promised completion date is looming close and the project exceeded the budget months age. The team is shuffling around like prisoners on death row. The only glimmer in their eyes is when the former PM leaves to begin job hunting. They envy him because no one will be yelling at him anymore.  

The rapidly approaching due date and budget overrun have the big bosses frantic. You definitely need to improve those issues but they’re not what you need to work on first. Those are symptoms.  You need to get rid of the causes of the failure. They are almost always the following:

  1. The project scope is loosy-goosy and new deliverables have crept in.  You need to tighten up the scope so there is no more scope creep . During that process, you may be able to find some unnecessary deliverables to delete.   Scope Creep
  2. Problems surprised the prior PM because he didn’t have an early warning system.  You need to stop bad surprises by tracking progress and issues up front. You can’t just look at last week’s work. Team members must give you weekly progress reports that include the percent complete and estimates to complete their tasks.  Weekly Status Report
  3. The executives did not consider trade-offs between the 4-corners of the project (Scope, Cost, Duration and Risk) and their strategic issues of change. There is no such thing as a free lunch. You need to spend time developing and explaining some strategic choices for them. These choices may let you deliver what they now want, not the original scope. Project Trade-offs

Project Rescue Tools: Estimate to CompleteSaving a failing project

The team members’ weekly estimates to complete (ETC) are invaluable. They let you continuously monitor your project’s schedule and cost. Estimates to complete are an essential part of all effective rescues. They are a key to turning your project around and managing expectations of the team and executives. ETC is simple. Each of your team members turns in a status report with the actual hours they worked on all their tasks during the past 7 days.  They also give you an estimate of how many hours of work they think they have left on each task. You will use that data in your project schedule and give yourself early warning on tasks that are slipping. It lets you address these problems while they are small and more easily solved.

As importantly, ETC gives successes to your team members who are probably feeling unenthusiastic about the project. Hitting their ETCs is a opportunity for praise from you.  ETC can help the work attitudes of your team. That’s what you need; people hitting their assignment due dates and receiving recognition of a job well done. 

Project Rescue Tools: Tighten Project Scope

You need scope and deliverables that are defined by the metrics the sponsor(s) will use to judge their acceptability.  That means you need to convert the original scope and deliverables to measured achievements.  For example, “Faster system response time” becomes “Customer Service Reps can access customers’ 12 month history in 9 seconds 90% of the time.”  That is understandable and measurable; not wishy-washy like the prior deliverable.  Tightening the deliverables’ definitions always does the following:

1. It identifies deliverables that are not needed 

2. It identifies deliverable expenses that can be reduced with a savings of  time and money.

Project Rescue Tools: Develop Trade-offs

Quantifying the project scope and developing metrics for all deliverables lets you offer the executives tradeoffs between the “4-corners” of the project scope, cost, duration and risk.  Here’s an example, you might offer a trade-off on the response time metric of “access customers’ 12 month history in 9 seconds.”  From your detailed work with the team, you might find that changing the response time from 9 seconds to 12 seconds, might give you software development savings of 8 days in duration and $12,000 in hardware expenses.  That’s the trade-off you show the executives for them to make a decision. 

Project Rescue Tools: Summary

These tools get the project rescue effort started. They also begin the executives’ training on the correct way to sponsor projects.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on