Leading troubled projects

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The biggest challenges of your career can pave the way to greater things – but they can also be your undoing, writes Mark McKee

Your ability to deliver big changes has helped you achieve success and recognition in your career. You’ve worked hard to build a record for delivery and excellence. It’s quite likely, though, that most of your projects and initiatives have had your involvement since inception, whether it was forming an elite team to take on a new market opportunity, taking over the helm at a new company, or moving into a role for which your general management skills are required. The real test of your mettle, however, is being handed that troublesome initiative nobody else is willing or able to take on. Perhaps the previous manager – or even CEO – left under a cloud and you’ve been asked to step in to make it right.

It’s gratifying to be recognised as someone who can improve things – or perhaps you’re the only person who’s ambitious and smart enough not to say ‘no’! However, there are a couple of pitfalls I’ve observed (and committed) as a manager and as an external consultant, which are: being too gung-ho about fixing things – and making those changes too quickly.

Here’s some useful checks I’ve learned to incorporate when taking on projects that aren’t in great health:

  • Dynamics: understanding team dynamics is critical before you think about what it is that needs to be adjusted. Get to know people individually and as a team. And avoid dominant characters having undue influence on your observations
  • Magic medicine: don’t assume you’ll be able to prescribe a magic formula. You can quickly alienate people by coming across like a know-it-all
  • New in town: play the ‘I’m the new guy’ card for as long as possible. It allows you to ask obvious questions and tease out bad assumptions as you gather good intelligence
  • External factors: get to know any external parties, such as suppliers, to understand where they think they fit in so that asymmetry between your expectations and theirs can be smoothed out
  • What do they want? spend time with your stakeholders. For any project you’ll need a detailed understanding of what constitutes success within reasonable boundaries. Facilitate workshops to grasp in detail what problems people really want to solve
  • What is the endpoint? You’ve got to ask this of your stakeholders to understand the acceptance criteria of each discrete piece of work and the macro view too; otherwise you’ll never know when you’re done

Also, don’t fall into the ego trap. You may have no idea what you’re getting yourself into so – why paint yourself into a corner trying to look heroic? Only until you’ve thoroughly analysed the project, the team, the client expectations and the market conditions can you offer any kind of estimate for when things will be operational again. Stick up for your right to properly assess and risk-manage the situation.

While running a project turnaround you’ll learn a lot about yourself, along with a whole new set of people-skills, so this can be a hugely positive time. Taking on a troubled project will require the use of all your powers of analysis, contingency, diplomacy and negotiation – and there is much to be gained from such an opportunity. Just don’t let your ego run ahead of you!

Mark McKee is business consultant at Deviate Create

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Mark McKee

Mark McKee

Mark McKee is business consultant at professional services consultancy Deviate Create

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