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How To Recover troubled programmes (part 1)

There’s only one thing worse than being told bad news, and that is being told about bad news late.  When a programme is failing, you should define the problem and potential solutions, and alert stakeholders at the first sign of trouble, according to LeRoy Ward, Executive VP at ESI.

I attended ‘Managing and Saving Programmes in a Changing World’, an audio/Webex conference with Ward recently.  Last week I wrote about the first half of the presentation, managing change programmes.  This is what Ward had to say about recovering troubled programmes.

Ward started off by explaining what a ‘troubled programme’ is.  There are several things that can go wrong in programme management:

  • Business case deterioration:  the programme started off with a good business case but it no longer stacks up.
  • Stakeholder evolution:  people change and new leaders at the top change the direction of the programme.
  • Technical failure:  this creates a programme integration risk as what you are building might not sit in the organisation’s architecture any longer.
  • Resource collapse:  either in the form of strikes or a key resource leaving.

So what can you do?

Don’t focus on the wrong issue.  The wrong issue is how you can catch up and finish on time. The right issue is how do you finish at all and gain something realistic benefit.

You need to regain control.  ‘Control’ is the scope, dates and roles on the programme which have been lost in through planning or execution in the first place.  The way out of this is to make big, targeted changes quickly.

This conflicts with the advice Scott Berkun gives in his book Making Things Happen.  He warns that if you make large changes you push the project off course and it can take a while before you see what you have done.  Then you over-correct by making another big change and you just weave from one crisis to another because you can’t keep your project on course.  So be careful about making big changes on a project that isn’t going that far wrong.

Ward identified several problems faced by failing programmes:

  • Completing an accurate assessment of programme problems is difficult for the programme management team because they lack objectivity.  Using an outside assessment team creates objectivity.  Bring in technical specialists as required.
  • There will be pressure from stakeholders to commit to a new schedule.  Measuring progress in small steps will help tremendously.
  • It takes time to determine the work remaining.  Data about how far off the original estimates were is needed to make accurate forecasts.
  • You need to sustain progress while planning recovery.  Additional temporary resources will be needed to do this.  The programme manager should direct the current workflow plus do all the work required to make progress with the recovery – no easy task!

Ward cautioned against declaring victory too soon.  Sustained control is necessary to prove that something has been turned around.  It takes teamwork to turn a programme around and then keep it on track.

Next week I’ll let you in on the 5 steps to recover a troubled programme.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. Diwant Vaidya says

    Like @Elizabeth said, that book sounds like an interesting tool to have in a PM’s toolbox @Glen. I wonder if I can include those 10 steps into PoP Project.

    Two things I feel strongly about that were mentioned by Elizabeth are (1) know you are in trouble early, and (2) have an objective review to figure out exactly what the problem (and fix) are. To that I would like to add that don’t only concern the trouble checks with the entire project. Break the project down into smaller chunks and make sure those chunks stay on track. It is easier to detect trouble this way because those chunks have smaller timelines, smaller deliverables, and smaller risk. So not only is it easier to find the problems with these sub-projects, when correcting any issues identified, Scott Burkin’s concern of ‘fishtailing’ with big corrective efforts can be avoided. The big, targeted change would be smaller since the size of the sub project being corrected is smaller. Smaller required change would mean less counter effort later on.

  2. Pradeep Bhanot says

    Business case deterioration is the one I have come across the most and it is one that can sneak up on you; therefore making frequent business case assessments vital. In one case the sponsor changed the requirements in small increments that chewed up the entire resource buffer and triggered a red flag to executives. This event resulted in a negotiation with the customer to make a call on what can be cut (or deferred) to get their top priorities met and still declare the project a success. If you delay the escalation project failure is assured.

    Sometimes when you are in a tail-dive and you want to avoid a tail-spin, the first thing you need to is pull up, then assess where you are, what resources you have left and what you need to do to get back on course or abandon the mission.

  3. Glen B. Alleman says

    One of the best book I’ve EVER come across on this topic is Catastrophe Disentanglement: Getting Software Projects Back on Track.
    It has a step by step method is get back on track.


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