We often get asked what to do if a project is stalling or failing. There is no single right answer, but there are some steps that we suggest.

We find it useful to declare a project ‘amnesty’ at the outset. All project team members and stakeholders – internal and external – need to be open and honest about every aspect of the project. This is difficult to achieve if they are concerned about negative consequences or criticism of their project performance or actions. This is not necessarily easy, particularly if there have been significant failings, but the more you can keep the focus on moving forward, the quicker you can remediate the issues.

The next step is to investigate why the project is stalling or failing. If you don’t understand what the problem is, you can’t fix it (except by luck). There are lots of different reasons why a project might run into difficulties. It might be common project problems like scope creep, resource challenges, or technical delays, or it could be factors outside of the project manager’s control such as budget cuts or strategic changes.

Once you understand the problem(s), critically assess the ongoing viability and validity of the project. Companies and sectors change; a project that made sense 18 months ago might not make sense now. We’ve written before that one of the most difficult things to do is to stop a project, particularly where you have invested time and money. Sometimes projects stall or fail because the project team and stakeholders realise that the project has no longevity before a formal decision is made to stop it.

Confirming that the project is still viable and understanding what needs to be fixed are vital steps before beginning the turnaround process, as you might decide that stopping the project is the best option.

Approaching the turnaround process

The turnaround process itself can take different forms and it depends on how much ‘turnaround’ is required. Sometimes, simply re-baselining, adding resource, or reducing the scope are sufficient to re-energise the project. Other times, you may need to take more substantial measures such as changing a supplier or installing a new project team. This short article is not going to attempt to list specific solutions – there are literally books written on this – but what is important is that you use the problem assessment that you made at the beginning to objectively identify the key issues and develop the resolutions.

Also, be conscious that any turnaround work normally takes place under significant time pressure. At the point that you begin, the project is probably already delayed, the expectation will be that it continues, and any further delay needs to be minimised. It is important to balance – and manage – the expectations of getting the project back up and running quickly (if it is still a viable project) and taking the right amount of time to both assess the problems and implement the solutions.

Last, but by no means least, is the project governance. If your project has reached a point of failure then the governance, for whatever reason, has not been as effective as it needed to be. The project governance should be investigated – and revised if necessary – as part of the turnaround process. The shape of the new governance should prevent the same issues from arising again.

Project turnaround can be complicated, business and time-critical, and can carry a significant human and financial impact. Good governance and early action minimise the risk of a project getting to this stage but does not completely remove that risk.