Article - Five Actions to Take When Dealing with a Troubled Project


In my previous blog posting "Seven Questions to Ask When Dealing with a Troubled Project" we examined the questions the project manager should ask when handed a troubled project. Let us now take a look at the possible actions one may initiate based on the answers received.

Answer #1 - This Project is Failing Due to a Poor Portfolio Management Decision

Actions you may consider:

  • Cancel this project.
  • Go back to the drawing board to change the project scope, timeline, budget, resources or timing to better fit company strategy, required project balance or to improve its value.

Answer #2 - We are Failing with the Project Scope

Actions you should probably take:

  • Initiate proper requirements elicitation, analysis and documentation procedure. This action should be undertaken by the individuals specifically trained in requirements engineering.
  • Ensure that the requirements document is written at a consistent and appropriate level of detail, provides an adequate basis for design and covers all possible  alternatives and exceptions.
  • Get rid of all the TBDs and ambiguous words in the requirements specifications document.
  • Conduct walkthroughs, inspections and peer reviews with customers, technical team and an experienced project manager.

Don't forget to ask the following questions in order to renegotiate the project scope:

  • “Can we move some of the desired functionality into the next phase?”
  • “Can we deliver the product or service in stages?”
  • “Can we cut some scope items altogether?”
  • “Can we polish some features less?”
  • "Can we initiate a Change Request to modify the scope of the project?

Answer #3 - We are Failing Because of Budget/Timing

Some of the actions you may take:

  • Re-estimate the project based on properly documented real requirements.
  • The estimation should be done by the qualified project manager (and not by the customer!) with the feedback from her project team.
  • Avoid succumbing to the customer and management pressure to decrease the estimates.
  • Negotiate to obtain additional degrees of freedom from the project stakeholders.
  • Consider sick and vacation days
  • Consider "project overhead" like project management, project meetings, user acceptance, etc.

Ask the following questions:

  • “Can we set a schedule goal but not an ultimate deadline?”
  • “Can we set a project goal of short schedule, and look for ways to reduce time planning and execution stages?”
  • “Can we use estimation ranges, and agree to refine them as the project progresses?”
  • “Can we share the cost of the project between several departments?”
  • “Can we exceed the project budget by X% without getting the approval of the senior management?”
  • “Can we capitalize some of the project expenses?”

Answer #4: We are Failing with Quality

Some of the actions you may consider:

  • Revisit the requirements steps above, as poor quality is very frequently rooted in poorly documented.
  • requirements (i.e. you discover new or overlooked requirements in the middle of the execution stage of the project).
  • Obtain the technical expertise to deliver this product.
  • Check whether the poor quality is a direct result of short time and budget. If yes, renegotiate timing and budget of the project.
  • Check if your team has been loaded with a lot of the technical debt issues from the previous releases.

Ask the following questions:

  • “Can we relax the detailed requirements for each scope item?”
  • “Do all the scope items have to be of the highest quality possible?”

Answer #5: We are Failing Because of the Effort

Actions you may take:

  • Request additional resources.
  • Communicate the problem to the stakeholders
  • Renegotiate project management triangle (i.e. decrease scope and/or increase time and budget).

Ask the following questions:

  • “Can we add more technical resources?”
  • “Can we add more experienced resources?”
  • “Can we provide our resources with proper training?”
  • “Can we add more administrative support?”
  • “Can we increase the degree of technical resource support?”
  • “Can we eliminate company red-tape?”
  • “Can we increase the level of customer involvement?”
  • “Can we increase the level of executive involvement?”

About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @

Jamal is an author of two very popular books: Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management and Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects.