The project from hell

PM Clinic: Week 21 discussion summary

Compiled: 3/24/2005

The Question:

I have a classic project management nightmare: poorly defined requirements, few specs, short lead time, no additional time or resources, and the kicker is it's a client-based project that, if not delivered on time and to satisfaction, could cost my company a significant amount of business. To add insult to injury:

  • the client *insists* that every issue is a showstopper, and refuses to prioritize.
  • the client is still pushing to add new functionality
  • The client is also peeved because they don't think our company has been performing on this project.
  • Internal politics include a dev manager who is about to be ousted, a tester who is about to be fired (and no replacement), and me: a lone project manager replacing someone who has been under performing but is staying with the company, and not inclined to help me in the transition.

I was brought in, yesterday, to clean up the mess (think Harvey Keitel). I have a ship date of April 15th. I'm in need of some very creative strategies, specifically to wind my way through all the internal and client politics, to soothe a pissy client, and to deliver quality software in 4 weeks! Much thanks to the smart folks at pm-clinic,

- In over my head in Toronto

General Advice:

There were several off list jokes about therapy programs, the availability of various illegal substances, and how one might apply for project manager sainthood.

  • One basic concept of management is the tradeoffs between features, schedule, resources and quality. If you are asked to add more features but can't adjust the other variables you have an impossible mission. You have to find a way to break the deadlock.
  • Colburn suggested finding out the leadership history. Are people being demanding because of bad past experiences? What are each of the stakeholders hot buttons? There is more going on than you may realize.
  • It's possible everyone has already given up on this project. You being brought in so late could be a trap: you'll be blamed despite the impossibility of the situation. Or it could be a way to help kill the project ("We tried 3 different managers and they all had the same result"). See what you can find out about why you were chosen, and what those in this role before you have to say.
  • Don't be afraid to ask hard questions. As a new person to the project play your "I'm new here" card and get answers others have been afraid to seek out.
  • Don't be afraid to walk away. Define what you need to be successful and ask for it. If they say no and are unwilling to negotiate they're telling you they don't really want success to happen.

Building Trust

  • The failures that led to this situation created a lack of trust across the team. As a new element in the situation you have an opportunity to build new trust. Make small commitments and deliver on them. Make your word mean something.
  • Put together an assessment of the situation, where the most urgent problems are, and what your timeline will be for delivering decisions (E.g. Here is where we are and what we're going to do about it). If you do this honesty and intelligently some people will offer their support to you and your direction.

Clear the Slate

  • Make sure your superiors understand the position you are in. If your assignment is the equivalent of running in a burning building, they should evaluate your performance with that in mind. You shouldn't be held responsible for the failures of the previous project managers.
  • Talk to individuals on the team one on one and make clear to them that your involvement creates a new opportunity.
  • Talk directly with the client. They're just as frustrated, or more, than you are. Apologize on behalf of your organization for what's gone wrong so far. Express your desire to resolve the situation and deal with it directly, fairly, and honestly.
  • If people have been misleading each other you can make sure it ends with you. Surface the hidden truths that others have been hiding from and get it out on the table.


Marc Colburn, David Gorbet, Jacquelyn Krones, Timothy Misner, Andrew Stellman, Steven Levy, Scott Berkun (editor)

About PM-Clinic

The pm-clinic is a friendly, wise, open forum for discussing how to lead and manage teams of people. Each week a new situation is sent to the list and we share advice, ideas and stories. Anyone can join as long as they follow the simple rules.


All content copyright 2005. Scott Berkun. RSS Feed