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How to successfully take over an existing project

You’re cruising along with your own plate full of projects or perhaps one very visible, mission-critical project and you’ve got about as much as you can handle. Sounds familiar, right? Now picture this – your PMO director or someone in your organization’s executive management comes to you and says they need you to take over project ‘x’ next week. Why? What do you do? What did you do to deserve this!? Lots of questions probably go through your mind.   But there’s a need and it’s usually because of one of the following reasons:
  • A project is failing and needs you as the replacement PM or to help the current PM get the project through some current issues 
  •  The current project manager has been fired, left the organization abruptly, or was removed from the project at the customer’s request or team’s request or someone’s request 
  •  Your skill set is a better fit for whatever is needed on the other project or needed by the other customer 
 
Whatever the reason, it really doesn’t matter and rarely are you given the right of first refusal. They want you on it and you better take the assignment. Does this still sound familiar? I’m sure most of us have been at this point at some time or another. It’s nice to be wanted, but you get that uneasy feeling that your other work and projects may suffer and you may not come out looking good in the end no matter how well you turn things around on the newly assigned project. So accept it if you must, but do it cautiously, efficiently, and wisely.
When I need to jump on a new project like this, I generally go through a few steps to get up to speed…and for this scenario I’ll assume that the outgoing project manager has little to no ability to transfer knowledge to me as I come on board…the onus for that falls to me.
Here’s what I always try to do and recommend doing if you find yourself in this scenario: 
 

Meet with the original account manager.

 This may or may not be of much help – it really depends on how far into the project you are. But the account manager who closed the deal always has some good info on assumptions that were made, customer needs he figured out, and estimates that were derived and how they were derived. All this may be helpful, but if the project is two-thirds complete, then likely not. It’s your call and it’s probably worth a phone call, but don’t spend too much time on this step. 
 

Meet with the PMO director or executive management person who assigned this to you.

Meet one-on-one with whoever assigned you to the project. Get as much high-level (and detailed, if possible) knowledge transfer as you can. Why did this happen? What’s the customer’s satisfaction level at this point? What are
the outstanding issues? And if the outgoing PM is available at all, include them in this discussion and get as much information from them as possible. 
 

Peruse current, available project documentation.

 Next, grab as much current documentation on the project as possible. The most recent 2-3 status reports will be very helpful and a detailed review of the revised project schedule is necessary. Likewise, review the resource forecast and budget analysis information in great detail. If the outgoing manager was not good at managing either of these, then you’ll need to create these from scratch and likely put together some historical budget information on the project so you know where the project budget stands. This is critical information. 
 

Conduct an internal team meeting.

 After you’ve managed to get somewhat up to speed, meet with the internal project team to discuss the project as a whole, all of the outstanding issues, what the customer pain points seem to be, what caused whatever is happening on the project to happen (necessitating the PM replacement action), and what the next hot tasks are. It’s critical that you appear to be as much in control as possible before stepping in front of the customer in order to salvage as much customer confidence and satisfaction as possible at this point.
 

Introduce yourself to the project customer and move forward. 

Finally, jump in with both feet. Introduce yourself to the project client either during a separate one-on-one call or during the next project status meeting. Provide them with your resume, your project experience summary on similar projects and hand them a revised status report and project schedule for the current week. The key is to be in charge – and this may require you to “fake it till you make it” at this point because you may still be trying to get up to speed depending on how quickly you’ve been required to jump on board. 

Summary

  
These scenarios are always difficult. And usually you aren’t given enough time to really feel like you’re ready to jump in and take over a project already in motion. You can make your brief apologies to the project customer that you’re new to the project and it’s unfortunate that they had to experience this team change, but you need to maintain their confidence as much as possible. So continue learning along the way, but take charge right away and give the customer every appearance that you’re ready and that you’re in control of the project team. 

This is a guest post from Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is an IT/Project Management consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 9, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad's site at http://www.bradegeland.com/