How to Rescue a Project

From time to time in your career as a project manager you may find yourself having to don the proverbial firefighter outfit and leap into the flames of a failing project. There are lots of reasons why a project fails.

Whether it’s because the original project manager is unavailable, inexperienced or quite possibly there never was one from the beginning…Well, now you’ve got your hands full. Pulling the nose up on a disastrous project is no small feat.

Where do you begin?

Reset Expectations

Anytime you step into an established role previously held by a peer there are going to be some expectations that need resetting. Perhaps the client doesn’t fully understand the situation of the budget or timeline? Maybe the team enjoyed a more “hands off” the previous project manager brought to the engagement?

Take a step back before you dive into the details and try to get a feel for the mood surrounding the project. Does the team feel it’s a “death march” to the end? Is the client relationship at risk? Does your management team feel it’s a lost cause?

Take stock of the political and emotional landscape surrounding the project. It should let you know whether a hammer or feather approach is needed in order to save the project.

ways to turn a project around

Get in Front of the Client

The most important first step in taking over a project mid-flight is to speak with the client as soons as possible. Your top priority is to find out what they think the status of the project is.

In a sense you’re managing your client. Do they think that everything is fine? Do they not know the status? Are they already unhappy?

The most important first step in rescuing a project is to become aligned with your client or stakeholder on the status of the project. If your client has no clue that the project is off track then it is up to you to begin softening the blow so that when your new plan is presented they are not surprised by it’s content.

If the client knows the project has not been going well, then you should position yourself as a customer service agent before your start discussing solutions. Being an astute listener is one of the most important traits for a project manager. Now that you have a full understanding of the clients expectations you’ll need to engage with the team to understand their position on the status of the project.

Talk with the Team

The obvious next step is talking with the team. What does the team think the status of the project is? Do they understand what the client thinks the status of the project is?

You may need to be direct and ask them what it would take to deliver the project successfully. Lean on the team to introduce solutions and try your best to incorporate those ideas into a draft plan.

The team is your best resource for information. While they might not have documented every conversation as the previous project manager should have, they will have noteworthy anecdotal information and opinions on where things have gone well and where they haven’t.

Read Everything

The last but most important step in saving the project is reviewing all of the documentation. You want to have great documentation, and this is the reason why.

Dig deep and find every scrap of paper. Find every email. Look through every project log and group chat. Review the initial contracts and get access to any digital tools that were being used to track the project. Build a strong foundation of all the formal and informal communication that has set the project on its path.

Once you’ve accomplished these steps it’s time to craft your approach and draft plan.  However, do not do this in a silo. Engage the team to help you build a solution that will get the project to the finish line.

Once you’ve got a draft, attempt to informally pass it by the client if given the opportunity. If you have to present the solution formally to a group of stakeholders, be ready for the real discussion after the meeting is done.


Now that you have a better idea of what you are up against it’s time to re-prioritize. A project in chaos must have priorities defined and agreed upon in order to have the chance to be saved.

After you have reviewed all the documentation, talked to the client and then the team, get everyone back together. At this point, you should have options. As a team, begin to prioritize the work ahead. Your goal is to whittle down the requirements into achievable milestones that everyone agrees on.

Taking over a project mid-flight is no easy task even if everything’s going according to plan. You may feel lost and confused for a time as you get settled in to the rhythm. During this time it’s imperative that you lean on your team to help you get up-to-speed and for you to build a trusting relationship with the client.

Even after getting the team, the client and the requirements set you may still have an uphill battle. However things shake out, I would lastly suggest scheduling a post-mortem to learn from the project so that in the future everyone can be more equipped to recognize and react to potential issues on forthcoming projects.

Your project might be failing or succeeding, but if you don’t have to right project management tools then you’ll not be able to turn it around or lead it to completion. You need a software that gives you real-time data to make the right decisions on time, which is why is cloud-based. When your team updates their statuses that information is reflected instantly in your software. Now you can manage the project, rather than merely react to it. See for yourself by taking this free 30-day trial. 

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