6-Point Checklist For Taking Over A Distressed Project


I will assume you believe people can make a bigger, faster difference toward success when engaged well and respectfully. No matter what you find on the ground when you arrive to help, people can solve problems faster when treated this way rather than when they are told, pushed, directed, and treated as dispensable.


If you feel people are a means to an end and you don’t value the individual as a human being but rather more as an asset only, then this blog is probably not going to be of help to you.

As part of my work as a business change consultant and coach, I have had the privilege of helping organisations and their teams when projects get into trouble. I call it a privilege because the people I come across on the ground when I arrive are invariable hard working, keen, and really want some help. And they are now confused and uncertain and don’t know how to deal with where they are.

This is an incredibly humbling position to be in. People are in a state of stress and feeling vulnerable; there is usually a strange sense in the air when I arrive, a sort of mix of both loyalty and fear because action has been replaced with dread and bewilderment asking ‘how did we get here’ as realisations hit that the team, function, project or company is suddenly (or so it appears) not where it should be and that consequences may now be serious—both for the company and people on the ground.

As An Example…

Team tries to recover a distressed project

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A project sponsor, for example, usually calls me in as a kind of last resort. Frustrated by the situation, they decide enough is enough after assessing from afar with a watchful eye that things aren’t going the way they should be. Sometimes the sponsor can be closely linked to the person directly responsible for the situation now in distress.

Most of the time, my arrival into a distressed project is greeted with a kind of hopeful hesitation by those involved. You may find this too if you arrive in a situation, for example, a project where changes are likely, and you are the one recommending and leading those changes (for a time anyway). How long a company took to decide to act to address the distressed situation has major implications for the likelihood of success for your work to get things back on track. You can read ‘#1 Thing That Breaks Projects (And Is Likely In Your Control)’ here about the one big thing that if handled well initially makes a big difference to a project’s ultimate success or failure—and usually this one thing, to a certain extent, is in a company’s control. Worth a read!

This initial situation of a sense of vulnerability particularly, which as I said is what I often find when I first arrive to help with a project in distress, motivates me greatly to get things done in double quick time, to rough out a mud map toward clarity so that both the company and people involved know where they stand and what the likely next steps are. Where possible I try to reassure quickly. If you find yourself in a similar leadership situation responsible for getting things back on track, get things done as quickly as you can. I guess we’d call these quick wins.

So, what are the things that you need to focus on when dealing with a distressed company, team, or project situation?

So, I wanted to share my approach for when I hit the ground in these sorts of project situations, a sort of standard checklist I have in my mind when I first arrive and in the early days. The list is born out of over 25 years of experience and success (and not) and serves me well when it comes to getting a project (or team or function) back on track to clarity and positive momentum.

The very first thing you need to do is you must demonstrate you are ‘hitting the ground fast’ toward helping everything get back on track to clarity and forward momentum.

Note I didn’t say back on track to success. Clarity first. Forward momentum second. Success may be third. Please do note that although success is often the case, there are some situations where the project or the team or the circumstances have been left for too long without care and attention and the situation is almost irretrievable.

If you find yourself inheriting or becoming aware of a distressed project, team, or function, here is what to do in the initial stage. Do it in this order and quickly.

My 6-Point Checklist

Checklist concept

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Here is my 6-point checklist that guides my initial entry into a distressed consulting assignment:

  1. Define the problem & how it came about. Consult widely and quickly.
  2. Define the level of sponsor, senior support for your work. How important to the company is this?
  3. Regarding the actual team or function involved, connect with them fast by email, group meeting, and face-to-face or individual Zoom in this order with little time gap between each form of connection.
  4. Ask ‘Who else?’ Who else is impacted or impacts this project/situation? Find out. Meet them. Understand.
  5. Timing — give yourself 30 days maximum to make inroads and bring things back to clarity if no deadline given.
    • Meet with all key stakeholders regularly, getting the difficult decision over quickly (e.g. reducing headcount) and importantly handle the decision implementation with the dignity of those affected top of mind and informing your approach.
    • No matter what.
    • This is not only the right way to go about this sort of implementation but if this reason alone doesn’t do it for you then remember those left behind in the company after your decision is implemented. That is the remaining team, and colleagues will be watching and will hear about how others were treated and take this as the company’s general approach going forward.
    • This can influence their decision whether to stay on in your company, team, or function. These people are likely your key resources that you need. This makes good business sense.
  6. Finally, use this checklist as the basis for a high-level plan to share with all stakeholders so they can see what you are doing and in what order. This builds trust and helps people feel reassured things are progressing forward. Note this plan is not about promising anything. It is about showing there is a structured process to resolution. This will help everyone no matter what the outcomes.

As I am called in when usual actions to fix a situation in distress don’t work (or haven’t worked)—even actions like replacing or firing people may have been tried in an attempt to not get this far gone into distress and non-performance, lack of productivity—often there are earlier warnings than the one that led to the phone to me.

Another way for you to reduce the chances of distressed projects and teams in your company and on your watch is to scan for what I call the early warning signals—signals that triggered your gut feeling in the first place and now demand more investigation.

Don’t ignore your gut feeling. It is always right. Just sometimes the interpretation of that gut feeling may be off and is what lets you down in the end. So, learn to surround yourself with good factual evidence like impartial data and seek out relevant subject matter experts ideally who are critical thinkers and respectful disagree-ers (you want people who are technically strong not people who are without critical thought) from in and outside the company ideally.

This information and help from others will help you make sure your interpretation of what your gut feeling is saying is as accurate as possible.

Then you decide whether you ignore or act on that gut feeling because now you have both data and impartial external input from others you trust and know or seek out that can help you in your decision making. This approach saves me time and continues to serve me well, particularly when it comes to identifying early warning signs well before a situation, team, function or project get into a distressed and difficult situation.

Summary

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If you find yourself appointed to help resolve a distressed work situation, team, or project, use the 6-point checklist as a guide.

Pay attention to the ‘how’ you go about implementing each step as much as doing each step quickly and effectively. There is more at stake here than meets the eye. If you believe people are the critical resource and central to your organisation’s ongoing health and success, the ‘how’ you handle the implementation to address the distressed work situation is equally important as to the structure and steps in the approach and actually getting it done.

Good luck. I would love to hear what you think and about your experiences in dealing with distressed situations.

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