Minimizing The Risk of a Second Hand Project

Taking over any project no matter what the phase takes a great deal of effort.  For the project manager it’s a time when their reputation is getting married to something that has an increased chance of failure.  The project manager should enter into that relationship with caution and I would recommend taking the following approach.  First I would review the existing documentation.  Second I would conduct a stakeholder survey to gain insight on the who of this project.  Finally I would engage in discussions on resource adjustments necessary to get the project manager to commit to a successful project.

A project without a project manager (PM) is doomed for failure.  This gives the potential PM a lot of leverage coming into the conversation.  The first thing to do is to read the project’s documentation.  This is because it signals the least amount of commitment allowing the potential PM to maintain a high power base against is potential clients while allowing him visibility on the technical details of the project itself.  Sometimes documentation isn’t always available in the planning stages.  Those are the stages after all where a lot of the documentation is getting created.  Whether in draft or final form, I would recommend the potential PM review the project’s proposal, budget, and communications plan.  These documents can lend insight to the project’s scope and methods that may have lead it to a its current dead end.

The project proposal will illustrate the scope.  Among the many things to look for is whether the project’s scope clearly explains what the project is and isn’t.  A vague scope can lead to project creep that increases the changes over time without increasing the resources to be successful.  The proposal will also contain the statement of need.  While it may seem commonplace a well written statement of need and professionally crafter project plan will encourage stakeholder buy-in.  Professionalism matters.  The plan messages a lot more than the words on the page.  It represents the level of quality expected throughout the project’s lifecycle.

The budget and communication plan can be reviewed rather quickly.  For the budget it’s important to check first for how thorough it is and secondly check for accuracy.  Its thoroughness can be referenced from similar successful projects while its accuracy can be tested by spot checking certain line items.  For example, office space rental can be confirmed by calling local realtors to verify quotes within the project’s budget.  The communications plan can be check for thoroughness to ensure that all the stakeholders are listed and their preferred method of communications also listed.  Ideally the communications plan would have a diagram outlining the methods and nodes (stakeholders) so that it can be easily visualized and analyzed to increase efficiency.  If the communication methods are beyond the capacity of the potential PM then the project will again fall short of expectations.  It’s easier to have fifty people adjust to one person than it is to have one person adjust to fifty people.

The next step after review the documentation would be to conduct a stakeholder survey.  Im Jim Collins’ book Good to Great he talks about how important the who of an organization is to being able to get a job done (Collins, 2001).  The project may have failed due to a small population of highly expressive personalities or a few key stakeholder absences.  The results of a stakeholder survey would end up being consolidated a type of internal facebook.  Just as organizations have customer relationship management (CRM) software a PM should have similar products to manage his stakeholders including notes on their pet peeves and what motivates them to produce high quality deliverables.  This survey will also help illustrate if there is a remaining loyalty towards the previous PM.  In some cases certain stakeholders may be happen to see a new PM come in.  In other cases a new PM creates an unwelcome dynamic and obstacle to reforming a team.

The last step after reviewing the documentation and conducting a stakeholder survey engaging in discussions to adjust the project resources.  As mentioned above the potential PM Is in a position of power.  This power base should be leveraged this to ensure the resources are appropriate for the project going forward as well as negotiating the final language and scope of the project.

A good persuasive argument for taking on a new project is difficult to pass up.  The 1992 movie Sneakers was made in large part because two of Phil Alden Robinson’s friends asked him a compelling question.  Paraphrased it went something like “if you were to direct this movie how would you film this one scene” (Robinson, 1992)  Once he started giving an answer he knew he was trapped.  He showed his hand on how he was thinking through the problem.  The same can be true about a potential project manager.  Utilizing the steps listed above the potential PM can get the information he needs while maintaining his power base to ensure he is in a position to negotiate terms that will lead to the project’s success.



Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.

 Robinson, P. A. (Director). (1992). Sneakers [DVD]. (Director’s Commentary).