Three Little-Known Ways to Get A Project Back On Track

Even the most experienced project managers (PM) will manage projects that miss their deadlines, go over budget, and produce results that the client isn’t happy with. Now, the difference between a good PM and a great PM lies in your ability to pick up projects when they go off track and course-correct in order to finish them as planned.

You’ve probably seen surprising stats on project failure rate (for example, IoT project failure rate is reported at 75 percent, with three of every four projects failing).

Doing damage control and dealing with unexpected surprises is a daily reality of a project manager’s role. You need to know how to realign your teams and handle the tricky conversations that need to happen when things don’t go according to plan. My goal with this post is to help you do this by sharing these three little-known ways to get a project back on track.

  1. Start sweating the small stuff

Every desert starts with a single grain of sand. Similarly, every project is made of smaller pieces — tasks, conversations, meetings, etc. Before you even try to fix the entire project, start by digging deep into the project details. Often, you can track a big, messy problem back to its origins as a small, seemingly harmless thing.

Start sweating the small stuff — and course-correct as soon as you see little problems come up. To do this, you need to track your project: compile info about resources (team members, budget, time) and use resource management software to chart dependencies and track your project stats. Leverage your project plan, your Gantt chart, your timeline, and your Statement of Work (SoW) to quickly identify the moment when things start deviating from the plan.

  1. Shift your focus away from the “nice to haves”

Ask yourself: is it possible that you’re going over budget and missing deadlines because you (or your team, or client) is saying “yes” to every new idea, feature, extension, upgrade and add-on that pops up?

There are must-haves and nice-to-haves in all projects. You need to use prioritization techniques in order to sort out the parts that are absolutely critical for achieving the strategic goals of the project.

Some common techniques are:

  • Ranking: assign a numerical value to each task according to its importance
  • MoSCoW: list requirements by “Must have, Should have, Could have and Won’t have”
  • $100 Method: each member distributes 100 points across requirements according to how important they think it is
  • Bubble sorting: side-by-side comparisons of two requirements, repeated until all requirements are sorted

You can also incorporate some of the Kanban methodology into your practice. Kanban is designed to limit the amount of work in progress and ensure that tasks are accurately prioritized. In Kanban, you create transparency by using a visual task board, moving the card for each task across the board as it reaches different progress points. There’s dozens of great Kanban tools you can experiment with in order to help you prioritize tasks and also increase the visibility of those priorities for your team.

  1. Take stock, and set yourself up with the right tools and techniques

The same approach that steered your project off the rails is unlikely to be the same approach that will steer it back on again. Project management is often a game of trial and error — yes, there are some excellent methods and tactics out there, but the trick is in finding the right ones for each situation, team and client. Ask yourself these questions to spot holes in your tools or techniques.

Are you suffering from misaligned expectations?

Projects are full of assumptions. This problem has its roots in the initial phases of your project — your requirements gathering process and your SoW. Prevent this problem by learning to properly document project assumptions.

Do you have a proper communications plan in place?

Many small miscommunications can result in one big, failing project. It takes extra time to set up, but a communication plan can work wonders for your client and team relationships. It should detail how progress will be communicated, at which intervals, to whom and through which medium. It should list the rounds of feedback and their dates, the people involved, contact information, etc. Often, a project can be saved simply by starting to communicate more effectively.

Are your estimates way off and your budgets too limited? Brush up on your estimating techniques — learn how to do project cost estimation. Did you know that there are different types of estimates you can use for the distinct phases of a project? Additionally, there are methods like the planning poker method that allow you to calculate estimates based on structured rounds of estimates from the team, which will not only provide an estimate but will also help clear up ambiguity about the work to be done.

You’re better safe than sorry when it comes to managing demanding projects. There are so many reasons why projects go off the rails, but you can address a lot of these root causes by stepping back and recalibrating. Remember to:

  1. Start small—deal with the details, even if they seem insignificant at first.
  2. Stop spending on nice-to-haves that break your project budgets — use prioritization techniques throughout your project.
  3. Assess your tools and skills. Where can you strengthen your project management techniques in order to bring a fresh approach to your project?

Do you see a way to polish up your skill set? How about your tool set? You can learn something from every failure —make it count!

Ben Aston is a digital project manager and founder of The Digital Project Manager, one of the fastest growing online resources for digital project managers. He has been in the industry for more than 10 years at top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. He has delivered everything from video virals to CMS, flash games, banner ads, eCRM and eCommerce sites across automotive, utility, FMCG and consumer electronics brands.